O2 UK Claim Completion of Phase One of Rural 4G Mobile Rollout Project

Mobile network operator O2 (Virgin Media / VMO2) has reported that they’ve “completed the first phase” of the £1bn industry-led Shared Rural Network (SRN) rollout, which was achieved by expanding their 4G (mobile broadband) coverage to a total of 227 rural communities in “partial not-spot areas” across the UK.

The SRN – supported by £501m 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 operators, which aims to extend geographic 4G coverage (aggregate) to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025 (or 84% when only considering the areas where you’ll be able to take 4G from all providers).

NOTE: The 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 SRN includes several targets, but the first one involves the delivery of industry funded coverage improvements for Partial Not-Spot (PNS) areas (i.e. areas that receive coverage from at least one operator, but not all), which needed to be achieved by June 2024. At this point, 4G (mobile broadband) must cover 88% of the UK’s landmass.

Rival operator EE (BT) became the first provider to report having achieved the PNS target in January 2024 (here), nearly half a year ahead of schedule, and it now appears as if O2 has recently gone full throttle to deliver on their own side of the SRN build commitment in time for the deadline. The progress is important, particularly given the concerns about long delays by the National Audit Office (here) and Public Accounts Committee (here).

Overall, O2 claims to have now built “more shared sites than any other operator” to improve mobile coverage in 227 partial not-spot areas across the UK. The Glencoe Mountain Resort (Scotland’s oldest ski centre) became the 227th site to benefit from improved 4G coverage, which also has the distinction of being the “highest mobile mast in the UK“, standing some 1,108 metres above sea level.

Jeanie York, CTO of VMO2, said:

“We are absolutely committed to bringing reliable mobile connectivity to more rural communities and have now completed the first phase of our SRN rollout. Our 227th site at Glencoe is now the highest mast in the UK and one of the most impressive to date, standing over a kilometre above sea level and providing connectivity to the nearby ski resort. This work is vital in tackling the urban-rural digital divide that exists in the UK.”

However, the official announcement makes no mention of the 88% coverage figure, which forms a key part of the PNS target. We are currently seeking clarification from VMO2 as regards to whether or not they’ve now hit this figure, as it’s also possible that achieving such a level may yet be contingent upon the other operators (i.e. Vodafone and / or Three UK) delivering on their PNS build (i.e. if their rivals are still heavily delayed, then O2 will still be below 88%).

At the end of the day it’s Ofcom’s responsibility to take a view on whether the Phase One (PNS) licence obligations have been met or not. The regulator is due to run a progress assessment this summer and will then reach a conclusion by the early autumn, which should give us a clear idea of how much progress has been made and where the operators have fallen short.

In addition, BT has just reached a crucial mast sharing agreement with Vodafone and O2 (here), which could enable rival operators to catch-up.

Recent Posts