Vodafone UK Set 5G and 4G Coverage Targets for Northern Ireland

Mobile operator Vodafone has today confirmed their commitment to both “exceeding” the UK Government’s minimum Shared Rural Network (SRN) coverage target for 4G services in Northern Ireland and upgrading this to support 5G Standalone (5G SA / mobile broadband) technology. But only if they get approval for their merger with Three UK (here).

At present, Vodafone claims that approximately 75% of Northern Ireland’s rural area landmass is a total 5G not-spot. But the operator says they can “exceed” the SRN’s minimum target, “of bringing 4G to more than 85% of Northern Ireland’s geography“, by ensuring “at least 98% of Northern Ireland’s landmass has access by 2027“.

NOTE: Vodafone and Three UK have previously stated that their merger would deliver 5GSA coverage to more than 99% of the UK’s “population” by 2034 and push fixed wireless access (home broadband) to 82% of households by 2030.

However, the operator’s claim of exceeding the 4G SRN target above appears to be questionable, since the 85% target they’ve initially referenced for Northern Ireland is only applicable when looking at the coverage from all MNOs combined. But the SRN target from at least one operator is already expected to reach 98%, which matches (not exceeds) Vodafone’s stated goal.

Current SRN Targets (Official)

However, where Vodafone does exceed the SRN is via the pledge of their merged business to upgrade this network, not least by ensuring more than 98% 5G Standalone geographic coverage across N.Ireland by 2034. By comparison, the Government’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy (WIS) recently set an ambition for “all populated areas [of the UK] to be covered by ‘standalone’ 5G (5G-plus) by 2030” (here), which is not as bold.

Just for context. Most existing 5G networks in the UK are Non-Standalone (NSA) based, which in simple terms means they partly rely on older 4G infrastructure. By comparison, 5GSA reflects a pure end-to-end 5G network that can deliver improvements such as ultra-low latency times (fast), better mobile broadband upload speeds, network slicing capabilities, better support for Internet of Things (IoT) devices, increased reliability and security.

Last year Vodafone became the first UK operator to launch a 5GSA network with their new “5G Ultra” package for consumers (here), although its coverage was initially limited to parts of London, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff, with more now being added. But in February 2024 they were joined by O2 (VMO2), which has initially gone live in parts of 14 cities and their service comes at “no extra” cost to customers (here).

Andrea Donà, Chief Network Officer at Vodafone UK, said:

“We know how vital access to connectivity is for everyone, so we want to ensure we do as much as we can to extend our coverage to rural Northern Ireland. Evidently, we need to accelerate the roll out of 5G infrastructure to every corner of the UK, and the proposed merger with Three UK will enable this, ensuring rural Northern Ireland doesn’t get left behind as a result.”

The government are mindful and generally welcoming of Vodafone’s coverage commitments. But this will have no impact upon the ongoing investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which has already signalled significant competition concerns, worries over consumer pricing and questioned the data provided by both operators (here). Getting the merger deal past the CMA seems likely to result in a requirement for significant concessions, which may or may not be palatable.

One final point to make here is that the coverage commitments being made by Vodafone and Three UK are NOT legally binding, which is a concern because mobile operators can’t always be relied upon to deliver what they promise and may change their plans (e.g. remember the U-turn on EU roaming charges?). In that sense, what they’re proposing to deliver should be taken with a pinch of salt.

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