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O2, Three UK and Vodafone to Share 222 Rural 4G Mobile Masts

Wednesday, January 27th, 2021 (7:56 am) - Score 5,904
vodafone_rural_uk_mobile_mast

The £1bn Shared Rural Network (SRN) industry project made progress today after mobile operators O2, Three UK and Vodafone reached a related agreement to both build and share 222 new 4G mobile masts, which will be used to boost mobile voice and mobile broadband coverage in rural parts of the country.

In case anybody has forgotten, the SRN is an industry-led scheme that aims to help extend geographic 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2026 (it may also help the 5G rollout too) – supported by a public investment of £500m. The scheme essentially 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 four operators (Vodafone, Three UK, EE [BT] and O2).

NOTE: The SRN further states that it will aim to provide guaranteed coverage to an additional 280,000 UK premises, 16,000km of roads and boost ‘in car’ coverage on around 45,000 km of road, as well as better indoor coverage for around 1.2 million business premises and homes.

The formal SRN agreement was officially signed off last March 2020, but since then progress has been slow and we’ve only seen a few locations being announced by the odd operator here and there (example). Suffice to say, mobile operators will have to move much faster if they are to stand any chance of meeting the aforementioned targets and that brings us to today’s development.

As part of the first phase of the SRN project O2, Three UK and Vodafone have agreed to team-up in order to build and share 222 (tentative) new UK mobile masts, including 124 new sites in Scotland, 33 in Wales, 11 in Northern Ireland, and 54 in England. The construction phase for these will begin this year, although it will take until 2024 before they’re all completed.

Matt Warman, UK Minister for Digital Infrastructure, said:

“I’m delighted to see major progress being made to banish ‘not spots’ of poor or patchy mobile coverage. This new infrastructure will unlock the potential of rural communities in all four nations and offer greater choice of fast and reliable 4G services.

As part of this new Shared Rural Network the government is also investing half a billion pounds on new masts in areas without any signal at all meaning no one is left behind.”

Despite this the SRN, which is being overseen by a jointly owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited, may still run into problems. In the past almost every new programme of rural mast building that we’ve ever seen has run into some problems with cost, supply (power, fibre etc.), access (wayleaves) and local opposition to related planning applications for new infrastructure.

As such it’s no surprise to find that today’s announcement mentions that the “exact number and location of masts will be subject to finding suitable sites, obtaining power supply and backhaul and securing the necessary permissions through the planning system.”

Many rural communities tend to cry out for mobile improvements, but at the same time not everybody wants to “see” the masts that need to be built. Unfortunately, you can’t have one without the other. However, some of these problems may well be tackled through the Government’s Mobile Planning Reforms.

Mark Evans, CEO of O2, said:

“The Shared Rural Network is a new and more collaborative way of delivering greater investment in infrastructure to improve mobile digital connectivity – a high impact enabler of economic growth. I am delighted that O2 is working in partnership with other mobile operators to deliver the Shared Rural Network, which will support individuals, businesses and communities across rural Britain.”

Robert Finnegan, CEO of Three UK, said:

“Mobile connectivity is absolutely critical for communities around the UK helping to support local economies and keeping people connected with their friends and family. The Shared Rural Network will have a transformative effect on coverage across the UK and it is great to be working with the rest of the industry to achieve this.”

Nick Jeffery, CEO of Vodafone UK, said:

“We know connectivity is vital and the only way to fill the holes in the UK’s mobile coverage is to work together. Our unique collaboration with O2 and Three will deliver 222 new sites in parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that need better connectivity. Delivering the Shared Rural Network will make a huge difference to communities across the UK.”

Just to clarify. The SRN will result in every mobile operator reaching “at least” 90% of UK’s landmass, which should produce aggregate coverage of 95%. In Northern Ireland the SRN will see 4G coverage rise to at least 85% of landmass from 75%; in Scotland it will rise to at least 74% from 42%; in England it will rise from 81% to 90%; and in Wales it will rise to at least 80% from 58%. A touch confusing, but that’s mobile coverage for you.

UPDATE 10:35am

We’ve separately been sent a comment from EE (BT), which isn’t part of the specific agreement mentioned above. The main reason for that is because the deal covers partial not spots, so they will – for the most part – be covering areas where EE already have good 4G coverage and getting the operator to share those masts – at a price that rivals would consider reasonable – is an old stumbling block for the SRN.

An EE Spokesperson said:

“Our historic investment into rural coverage means we already deliver the widest 4G network across the UK, helping to meet our Shared Rural Network target. We’ve built more than 600 new rural sites over the past few years and we’ve offered to make these available to other operators to support them to improve their own rural coverage.”

However, EE will play a greater role when the SRN starts to focus on total not spots, where nobody has coverage (this is where the Government’s funding will help).

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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30 Responses
  1. Avatar 5G_Infinity says:

    Is there a list of locations?

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      I’ve asked, but we may have to wait a bit longer before they’re confident enough of the sites to post them in public. I suspect they may also be wary about broadcasting too much detail, given the rise of conspiracy-loons who have attacked their infrastructure.

    2. Avatar Buggerlugz says:

      Beat me too it, I’d like to know which locations, (maybe even which villages will benefit) from the 222 sites mentioned. Surely this wouldn’t impact safety in any way.

      Still, I’m unconvinced. In my rural location all the carriers are on par with very similar download speeds across their masts, so short of “more masts” to spread the load across the same number of users, I fail to see how this would improve speeds for anyone.

    3. Avatar 5G_Infinity says:

      For Wales they will build shared 4G masts in Pembrokeshire, Snowdonia, Powys and the Brecon Beacons

  2. Avatar Tim says:

    Maybe in a few years Three will have some rural coverage and O2 and Vodafone will have more than just 10Mhz of LTE per cell… pigs might fly first.

  3. Avatar Ed says:

    One of the things that continues to surprise me is the lack of agility by the MNOs.

    In many rural areas the rollout of full fibre networks (I’m thinking the likes of gigaclear and Truespeed in the south west as examples) means that multi gig fibre connections now run straight past many MNO cell sites. Yet those same sites still have limited speed – many of EE’s rural 4G masts that I’m familiar with still run at 80Mbps even when they are literally less than 25m from a multi gig fibre network.

    Surely it’s about time the MNOs could start to integrate capacity from alt-nets in order to boost rural connectivity.

    1. Avatar John says:

      MNO’s buy fibre links for their cell sites from numerous sources.

      There’s nothing stopping them buying fibre from an ALT-NET.
      Lots of providers extend the local fibre to masts.

      I’m curious as to what mast only has 80Mb backhaul?

    2. Avatar Phil J. says:

      MNO’s need carrier grade dedicated synchronous bandwidth with high reliability to backhaul from a mast to their core network which is why they pay 4/5 figure £ rental cost per annum for every link. This is not the same as what consumers are provided over a PON/local broadband network.

  4. Avatar Michael V says:

    Of course EE are absent from this agreement. I know they’ve put much effort in, they have BT’s money too!
    The list of each country is helpful. Didn’t realise we on have 58% of landmass coverage here in Wales. It’s great to have this update. With Three having VoLTE across all their 4G bands & completely across the whole nation makes it easier to leave out 3G.

    This business of people protesting against cell sites shouldn’t have the power to block coverage expansion.

  5. Avatar Sam says:

    Would be nice if they just did this everywhere rather than just rural. Would be a whole lot simplier!

    1. Avatar Michael V says:

      True… It’s why we have Three & EE sharing agreement & also the O2 & Vodafone sharing agreement.
      Three EE & Three one seems to be selective as since 4G roll out they seemed to have forgotten to share all sites.
      I still see EE only & Three only sites, which is a little disappointing.

      Vodafone & O2 sharing is still strong.
      O2 wanted a mast in the centre of my village here in South Wales so Vodafone built one for them at end of 2017.

  6. Avatar Nicholas Ashfield says:

    Any chance we can see the proposed locations of these new masts?

    1. Mark Jackson Mark Jackson says:

      I’ve asked and they responded with an answer to something I hadn’t asked (i.e. avoiding the question), so it doesn’t look likely.. yet.

  7. Avatar MikeP says:

    Also EE are providing new sites for the much-delayed ESN. Wonder what the implications of the ESN funding are for EE allowing sharing of those sites?

    The planning app/notification for an ESN mast to cover our village did mention the possibility of its being used in the future for public cellular coverage.

    The pitchfork & torches brigade were out against it, so I kept my head down (tho they did try to rope me in). Painted it red on an image of what it would look like superimposed on a photo…..

    They’re quite happy for the cricket pitch to be used for the Air Ambulance, though. Think they missed that without ESN coverage there could be some difficulty calling it out.

  8. Avatar Granola says:

    Why are they using km for roads ? We have had Brexit, they are our roads and are measured in miles.

    1. Avatar CarlT says:

      You’re really not going to be happy next time you look at one.network and see the units used for all the streetworks.

      More seriously we are, thankfully, mostly a metric country. Only reason we haven’t switched road signs is that it’s just not practical.

  9. Avatar Random Precision says:

    Metric measurements etc has nothing to do with brexit. There’s none so dim than those who can be seen from space

  10. Avatar Guy Cashmore says:

    O2 have clearly been holding back in the past couple of years, I presume so they can share some of the cost with other providers. In my local ‘not spot’ village they obtained planning permission for a much needed new mast over 3 years ago, they still haven’t started construction. Hopefully this will move forward now.

    1. Avatar Mark says:

      I thought with planning permission a substantial amount of work would have to taken place within a set period, otherwise the permission is revoked, certainly that’s the case here, you can’t start to build with only a month left of permission, but thats the local council here.

    2. Avatar Guy Cashmore says:

      @ Marc

      March 2017 the permission was granted, by summer 2017 the backhaul fibre was installed by OR (it is still sticking out of the ground close to the site today), since then nothing.. http://apps.westdevon.gov.uk/PlanningSearchMVC/Home/Details/170290

  11. Avatar Mark says:

    If they produce a list, that’ll provide the objectors a head start to mobilise their troops, 20 years they’ve tried in my local Cotswold Town,still unsuccessful, if you have a vocal minority and landowners who won’t allow a build, then its a non starter. Still good luck to ones who get a better service.

  12. Avatar Marc says:

    As an EE customer, I wish they didn’t come across as so arrogant. They suffer from not spots just as much as the other networks so this idea that so called partial notspots are already covered by EE is a joke. The village I grew up in, in Wales, has awful EE coverage despite thier checker saying it should be excellent. Infact only Vodafone provide excellent coverage there atm.

    1. Avatar Mark says:

      There lies 5he problem,its all a computer prediction, high quality coverage on 3/4G here stated, but nothing even outside and wslktest the whole area, nothing on 3, O2 or Vodafone.

  13. Avatar Mark says:

    Guy Cashmore. Is that a AONB? Amazing if they got through a 15m lattice tower. My area of Cotswolds can’t even get an 8m telegraph pole through, without it being detrimental to the area! Didn’t people object to it? Is that right only 576 population? Wow we are backward here with the nimbys,4000+ population.

  14. Avatar TrueFibre says:

    This will be good for the local economy’s and customers. They should do that with all masts not just new ones. I fully support this my area you get a ok Signal I am with Vodafone but Signal could be better. In my area 3UK has a really good superfast 3G service that was before 4G came out. So I would imagine a 4G mast near me would be awesome

    1. Avatar Mark says:

      Your lucky, I’m afraid they’ll have their work cut out building new masts, I’m afraid opinion seems to be changing, last mast application here relieved over 600 letters of objections. I’m afraid for areas this will have no effect, theres too many hurdles to overcome, it will go the same way as MIP.

  15. Avatar G Cot says:

    Why do they need to physically share masts from the get go? Why not just allow roaming onto rural sites and have cross network roaming agreements. Then if say Vodafone find they are being charged a lot, in say an area of Wales as their customers roam onto EE, they can choose to build their own mast, or ask to physically share.

    Maybe the MNOs should be just, network & backhaul. Customers should all swap to buy services from VMNOs who buy what they need from whichever network their customers are near.

    Maybe we should have a national competition to design more athletically pleasing rural masts? Similar was done a few years ago for electricity pylons, some good designs blended in much better than current designs.

    1. Avatar Mark says:

      If you read most objection letters, its nothing to do with appearance, but the health issues, its usually, the birds,bees, sleep disturbance, cancer etc,

  16. Avatar Philip says:

    I live outside Gloucester I’m with 3. Signal very low . Constantly changing masts ie London Bristol bath Cardiff. I’ve made many complaints all I get is the run around give us your post code we will look into it. That never happens . So many complains on line .never any results and they have the cheek to up the monthly fees in April. It’s about time 3 looked after there customers instead off offering deals they cant keep

  17. Avatar John newell says:

    In 2017 the outdoor 2G we received was ceased when the 4G antenna was redirected. Since then, all the MNOs claim coverage of 4G, both on their own checkers and OFCOM. There is no coverage from any operator.

    Only the SRN can change this, but all enquiries as to how and when come against the brick wall that there is already coverage. Catch-22.

    Monmouth CC heralded a 5G rollout but are unable to recognise the problem, neither do OFCOM.

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