O2 Deploys 150th 4G Mobile Site Under UK Shared Rural Network

Mobile network operator O2 (VMO2) has today revealed that they’ve now rolled out enhanced 4G (mobile broadband) coverage across 150 rural sites (up from 100 in mid-Feb 2024) as part of their commitment under the £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN) project, which aims to extend geographic 4G cover (aggregate) to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025.

The industry-led SRN – supported by £500m of public funding and £532m from operators – involves both the reciprocal sharing of existing masts in certain areas and the demand-led building and sharing of new masts in others between the mobile operators. But the 95% figure is only when the service is available from at least one operator, while the UK coverage forecast for SRN completion for all operators is actually just 84% for the same date (i.e. geographic areas where you’ll be able to take 4G from all providers).

NOTE: The SRN target varies between regions, thus 4G cover from at least one operator is expected to reach 98% in England, 91% in Scotland, 95% in Wales and 98% in N.Ireland. But this falls to 90% in England, 74% in Scotland, 80% in Wales and 85% in N.Ireland when looking at coverage from all MNOs combined.

The remote Scottish Inner Hebrides Isle of Eigg, which is home to less than 100 people, has become the home of Virgin Media O2’s 150th SRN site (mast) – some 117 of those are in rural parts of Scotland. While these 150 sites are controlled by O2, customers of Three UK and Vodafone are also benefitting from the operator’s rollout as part of shared access (EE didn’t take part in this aspect of the SRN).

O2 needed to use boats, helicopters and off-road vehicles to install a new 4G mast on the island, which previously only had coverage from just one provider, thus the upgrade offers residents more choice and will help many visitors stay connected for the first time.

Taking into account progress from all operators and the related infrastructure sharing agreements, VMO2’s customers can now benefit from faster 4G services at more than 200 rural locations.

Jeanie York, CTO at Virgin Media O2, said:

“We are continuing our Shared Rural Network rollout at pace to ensure more rural communities can access reliable mobile connectivity. Having delivered more sites than any other operator, our commitment to delivering this ambitious programme and levelling up rural areas is clear.

The 150 sites we have delivered will enable more residents, businesses and visitors in rural areas to benefit from better mobile coverage, with dozens more locations set to go live in the coming weeks. This work is vital in tackling the urban-rural digital divide that exists in the UK.”

Julia Lopez, Minister of state for Data and Digital Infrastructure, said:

“Backed by government funding, Virgin Media O2’s rapid rollout of the Shared Rural Network is delivering better 4G coverage to rural communities across the UK. The completion of its 150th mast in the Isle of Eigg in Scotland involved the use of helicopters, boats and off-road vehicles to get the build done and shows the UK Government’s commitment to rural residents and businesses, so the British public can enjoy good connectivity wherever they live.”

Despite the progress, the National Audit Office (NAO) recently confirmed (here) that Three UK, Vodafone and O2 were “each likely to miss their Ofcom licence obligation to provide 88% 4G coverage by June 2024” (i.e. the target for partial notspots (PNS) and had requested to “discuss an 18-month extension to the PNS element of the programme” (EE has already completed this target). At present, this only impacts the PNS, not the main target for Total Not-Spot (TNS) areas by early 2027.

Just to recap. Ofcom’s licence obligations commit each individual operator to increase its 4G coverage to 88% of the UK’s landmass by June 2024 – rising to 90% by January 2027 – with these individual obligations supporting the overall target of 95% by December 2025.

Last month saw the government reject calls for a delay to the PNS target (here), albeit partly because this is something that Ofcom first need to assess (they’re expected to reach a conclusion during the autumn). The government claims that the final TNS coverage target could still be achieved on time (i.e. they’ve build a fair bit of allowance for possible delays into the programme), even if there’s a delay to the PNS side.

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