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BT Chief Takes Swipe at UK Mobile Rivals Over Rural 4G Delays

Monday, Jan 22nd, 2024 (12:14 pm) - Score 4,800

BT’s Chief Security and Networks Officer, Howard Watson, has written a new blog post that contrasts their delivery progress on the £1bn industry-led Shared Rural Network (SRN) project (i.e. extending 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025) with the slower pace at Vodafone, Three UK and O2 (VMO2).

The somewhat gloating post is roughly timed to coincide with this week’s debate in Parliament (Westminster Hall at 4:30pm on 24th Jan) on the SRN and next month’s conclusion of a related programme review by the National Audit Office (NAO). Both of which will no doubt flag up the now expected delays to completion of the (phase one) coverage improvements for “partial not-spot areas“ (i.e. areas which receive coverage from at least one operator, but not all), which needs to be achieved by June 2024 (at this point 4G must cover 88% of the UK’s landmass).

NOTE: The SRN also aims 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 premises. Individually, each operator will aim to reach 90% geographic coverage.

EE announced last week that they’d been able to complete the first phase of the programme “six months ahead of schedule” (here), which meant their geographic 4G mobile network overage in each individual nation now stands at: England (94%), Northern Ireland (89%), Scotland (77%), and Wales (86%).

Meanwhile, reports last year claimed that Three UK, O2 (VMO2) and Vodafone had reportedly warned the government that the first phase of their SRN deployment could be delayed by as much as 2 years (here). This is said to reflect the impact of both the COVID-19 pandemic and long-delays (up to 500 days) in being able to secure planning permission for the sites. But Watson gloats that such excuses didn’t stop EE achieving their part of the project ahead of schedule.

Howard Watson said:

“Take Scotland. Despite Government funding to build 55 brand new sites, two networks have managed just under a third of sites between them, while the fourth has managed to add 4G to just a single site over the past three years. On the UK Government’s flagship mobile policy – the Shared Rural Network – Ministers have reportedly received an unwelcome request from CTOs of those same companies asking for extra support in order not to miss their targets. One has already gone as far as to tell the Business and Trade Select Committee that they would miss the target.

Of course, disruption can happen. Covid did impact on workforce personnel and supply chains, but they impacted networks equally. EE entered the SRN agreement clear-eyed, understanding the deployment environment and the difficulties we would undoubtedly face. We therefore designed our programme to mitigate risks and delays to our roll-out. During the programme, we also made difficult decisions to divert spend and resource from other network programmes to overcome issues in a timely manner, given the importance of meeting the deadline to our customers and due to the clear financial penalties for non-delivery.

In other words, delivering legally binding commitments like these to Government takes a concerted effort and strategic sacrifices; there is always a choice for how, what and where a business chooses to invest. And given the involvement of taxpayer money to fund coverage, it’s hard to blame the wider investment environment for missing this licence commitment.”

In fairness, EE went into the SRN with the strongest geographic 4G coverage of any UK mobile operator after having initially invested more than their rivals into improving rural coverage, and as such it’s not a huge surprise to see them become the first to complete the first phase of the SRN. We’ve also seen a fair amount of activity from Vodafone and O2, although they’ve still clearly got some catching up to do and Three UK is in a similar boat (approval of Vodafone’s planned merger with Three UK may change that).

Ofcom are also expected to publish their own review of the SRN’s progress this year, which should provide a lot more information on how far behind the three operators really are and what they must do to correct that. Going forward, the operators also face a deadline for improvements in “total not-spot areas” by early 2027, although so far, they’re all claiming to be on-target for that.

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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 X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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45 Responses
  1. Avatar photo James says:

    I am with EE currently and find the signal in rural Aberdeenshire to be atrocious… have tested o2 and Vodafone simcards and will be making the move to o2 once my EE contract is up… signal is better and also more value for money.

    Only thing EE really has going for it is the speed and even then the alternatives are not really that bad from the testing I have done in the area’s I live/visit.

  2. Avatar photo Vince says:

    remind me, who has the rather lucrative agreement for ESN to give them extra incentive over everyone else as they’re getting paid twice…

    Oh yes…

    1. Avatar photo william perrin says:

      well quite – an important side benefit of the ESN was to extend rural 4G coverage, Never let it be said that a corporate CEO is disingenuous but EE was paid to increase rural coverage by the government in the past and I do wonder if their planning applications got through quicker by mentioning emergency service use of the mast……

    2. Avatar photo MikeP says:

      Came here to say exactly that. It was a mast installed for ESN that’s providing good EE 4G coverage in the our village. And no, shouting ESN doesn’t override planning considerations. They initially proposed a site that was highly visible (in an AONB) to much objection. In that original application, they claimed it was the only suitable location, along with twenty seven eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was. They said the obvious place next to the almost invisible TV relay was quite unsuitable. 12 months later and that site had magically become able to meet the coverage requirements.
      Of course, despite being intended for the emergency services, it has no backup supply so as useful as a chocolate teapot in a Real Big Emergency.

  3. Avatar photo Glectric says:

    I live in Northern Ireland and EE’s rural 4G coverage is shocking in comparison to my current network, Vodafone. Infact, EE’s coverage in general outside towns and cities in Northern Ireland is very very poor. It would appear they have a very solid network across the water but definitely not here.

    1. Avatar photo Jon says:

      I’d always thought O2 had a strong markethold in NI. EE have used B20-800Mhz on quite a few rural sites over there.

  4. Avatar photo Jim says:

    I wouldn’t gloat too much. In many urban areas, EE is unusable thanks to their insistence on only using 1800Mhz. Meanwhile, the other networks can manage to give a working service. Even Three work indoors now in some places, with their band 28 rollout.

    1. Avatar photo Gigabit says:

      It’s a very strange strategy that they seem to want to extend rural coverage but not use the low band spectrum they own. If they did they might be able to get closer to the geographical coverage of their competitors but they seem to be allergic to it.

    2. Avatar photo Sonic says:

      Exactly that. I was with EE for about a year and it was a painful experience. Worked reasonably well outdoors but all signal would just vanish the moment you walk into a building. According to EE support, the solution is to “connect to a wireless network and enable wifi calling”.

      They eventually let me terminate the contract penalty free.

    3. Avatar photo Jon says:

      EE don’t “only” use 1800Mhz. They have extensive 800mhz 4G service too.

    4. Avatar photo Jim says:

      lol the pedantic police are here. No, they don’t “only” use 1800Mhz. There is the odd 800Mhz site here and there. The majority of their inner city sites do not have any low band coverage. Go and have a look at cellmapper for any large city for EE and its 90% Band 3.

    5. Avatar photo Jon says:

      Unlike Jim’s previous post which stated “thanks to their insistence on only using 1800Mhz”, EE have extensive 800Mhz deployment.

      The B20 layer is designed to be a coverage layer of last resort, with in-building penetration of high-bands always preferable for obvious reasons. One single B20-equipped site can provide large areas with that “last resort” service, hence the deployment on strategic sites.

    6. Avatar photo Gig says:

      You say this but this isn’t what happens.

      I live in rural Hampshire, except the one site which is still 3G for EE and Three (O2 and VF both have 4G), there is one site with band 20 which doesn’t work. Band 3 works outdoors only.

      EE is a bad network indoors and always will be until they change. Even Three understands this.

    7. Avatar photo Jon says:

      Not sure what you mean by “it doesn’t happen”?

      EE’s primary deployment is on B3, with B1 & B7 as capacity layers, B20 a coverage layer. There isn’t always B3/B20 overlap, and B20-only should be the exception rather than the norm.

    8. Avatar photo Jim says:

      You just don’t get it do you, Jon? B20 should be ubiquitous for EE. The carrier settings on the phone should determine if it’s a last resort.

      As it currently stands, there a large holes in EE’s B20 coverage, which means when you go inside a building, more often than not, B3 is the only coverage available and quickly gives up.

      But the other networks aren’t so scared of low band 4G and keep on working indoors.

    9. Avatar photo Jon says:

      In rural locations I would agree an extensive B20 rollout is wise where B3 overlap isn’t present. In urban areas not so, and individual site configs will always be an issue – I’m not sure installing on 100% of sites is practical. Lovely idea, but not always practical.

      In no way are EE “scared” of B20, quite the opposite. I wonder how much experience Jim has of planning & rollout – typing out “they should do this, they should do that” on internet forums is always an easy task.

    10. Avatar photo Peter says:

      True, even in areas with B20 it’s only 5mhz so it’s really slow to unusable.

  5. Avatar photo John says:

    Ee is very poor here in Skipsea, vodafone is good and just putting up a new mast near here 1 mile away as there was a capacity problem, but will be fixed by this new mast .ee don’t bother in this area same coverage for the last 10 years.

    Ee very very poor
    Vodafone great
    O2 good
    Three ok.

  6. Avatar photo Ralph Freeman says:

    A large area near to me has very poor coverage due to all planning being refused even on appeal. EE took it higher and claimed they must have a mast gor ESN and it worked, permission refusal overturned.

    I use 3, faster cheaper and as good coverage IMO

  7. Avatar photo Gigabit says:


    EE has less population coverage than O2 and Vodafone.

    So EE is shouting about the fact they’ve managed to, ten years later, still cover less of the country than the others.


    1. Avatar photo Gigabit says:

      *geographical I meant, sorry!

      And if you don’t believe me, check Ofcom’s own figures.

      Perhaps it is EE that need help, maybe if they did a bit more low band deployment as opposed to being scared of it, they might do better.

    2. Avatar photo Jon says:

      The last figures I saw, have EE substantially ahead in 4G landmass coverage. Most of the remote corners that were O2/VF 2G only for years, now have EE 4G service.

    3. Avatar photo Gigabit says:


      4G yes, nobody is saying otherwise. Geographical full stop, no. They still lag behind. Certainly questions on why more of VO2 is not 4G but the reality is that EE still cannot compete on that front.

    4. Avatar photo Jon says:

      A comparison of 2G-landmass versus 4G-landmass would certainly be an interesting one, I’d like to see those figures. There’s an argument around whether plain vanilla voice coverage is an acceptable basic, versus having usable data also.

      VO2 had massive advantages in past years in remote Highlands for one, with their 2G layers. EE have plugged the vast majority of their gaps with B20/B3, and in very many areas now have B3/B20 where no-one else has anything. This is evidenced by the S4GI programme.

      I know of a couple of locations around the far-north that were 2G-only for O2-only, but those had EE-B20 deployed a few years back with B3 activated later.

  8. Avatar photo Ogilvie Jackson says:

    EE providing great service here in the Scottish Borders. Thanks mainly to the many remote ESN [EAS] MASTS which after a long delay seem to be now active .
    I thought they were only going to be on Band 20 [800 mhz] , but are on 1800+……which is fine, 120 mg speeds ! What with this and FTTP …WE ARE ALL HAPPY PUNTERS .

  9. Avatar photo Guy Cashmore says:

    ESN progress in rural Devon so far has been glacial, according to the published maps when the program was announced this area was supposed to be significantly improved, but so far almost nothing. Annoyingly, total not-spots are actually quite rare, the area is dominated by partial not-spots but no single operator has any real advantage.

    It seems the MNO’s have forgotten what the S in SRN stands for, here we don’t need lots of brand new cell sites, just a lot more sharing which has got to be cheaper/quicker/easier than new sites.

    They need a damn good wake up call, enforced rural national roaming would work well here.

    1. Avatar photo Jon says:

      National rural roaming is an easy headline to write, but has a few complications in reality.

      Both commercial and technical. Incentivising coverage improvements is an easier solution to implement.

    2. Avatar photo Guy Cashmore says:

      Lots of rural mobile improvement projects & incentives have come and gone over the decades, none has succeeded so far and SRN appears to be going the same way. Time for a different approach. Visitors from overseas get great coverage here, it can be done.

    3. Avatar photo Jon says:

      As mentioned, national rural roaming is an easy headline to write or comment to make on a web forum. There are complications in reality.

    4. Avatar photo Guy Cashmore says:

      France has managed it. OFCOM needs to get tough, the MNO’s have had decades to resolve this and have repeatedly failed, they now need to be forced. It can be done.

    5. Avatar photo Jon says:

      Ofcom getting tough is a good laugh.

      One issue would be calls that are made whilst roaming due to a local outage. At what point should those calls be handed-back to the “native” network? When coverage is available again? That needs incall handover between all 4 MNOs. When the call naturally ends? But that could mean “roaming” for much longer than was strictly necessary, with commercial implications.

  10. Avatar photo N says:

    EE are being subsidised to do this under thier emergency services contract and also have the most spectrum. It is also the way they are delivering USO requirements. Not really very surprising then is it?

    BT are so tiresome honestly

  11. Avatar photo Mark Bentley says:

    Quite hilarious really, we live in a rural area, don’t even have voice on the EE network let alone data, and aren’t on the build plan for their fibre network. We have full service from all the other networks, and an Altnet is very kindly about to put fibre into our road as BT aren’t interested.

  12. Avatar photo Me says:

    Bit obnoxious and arrogant of them, considering Three has endless planning applications rejected. And then when they try to merge with Vodafone to boost their network BT object.
    I can get 5G with EE but then their signal indoors in some places is none existent but full strength outside. Perhaps BT and EE should work on boosting indoor reliability with voice calls rather then belittling the competition.

    1. Avatar photo Tyler says:

      what do you think WIFI calling is for??
      Mobiles are called that for a reason

    2. Avatar photo Sonic says:

      @Tyler – don’t be ridiculous.

      At my last place of work, they didn’t allow WiFi calling on the company public wireless network. WiFi calling uses the same ports as IKEv2, and many “guest” wireless networks block it.

      Effectively meant that I was cut off from calls and texts at my workplace. The network provider needs to ensure their network can be accessed from indoor as well; things like WiFi calling is a poor substitute.

    3. Avatar photo Jon says:

      I’d challenge any network to guarantee 100% national indoor coverage – good use of low-band will always help, but you won’t cover everywhere. VoWiFi is a good mitigation, but I’d agree that mobile coverage is always preferable.

    4. Avatar photo Sonic says:

      I agree, but Vodafone and O2 have no such problems. Even in basement levels, you get a weak signal which keeps you connected (basic calling and texts). EE, no chance. Three is slightly better.

    5. Avatar photo Me says:

      @Tyler, your comment totally ignores some basic facts, like indoors is ANYWHERE indoors, like shops, supermarkets, you know places other than your own home. Other networks work just fine with as others have said 1 or 2 bars, EE no chance.

  13. Avatar photo John says:

    I worked for Openreach (BT Group) prior to the EE aquisition and all of the engineers were issued with Vodafone sim cards. When BT acquired EE, we were swapped over to BT Sim cards that piggy back off the EE network. Working in Dorset, Hampshire & Wiltshire I can safety say the service was terrible and would often resort to hot spotting from my personal phone which was on Vodafone. This single switch from Vodafone to BT caused huge uproar internally and thousands of engineers were complaining across the country. For all their marketing and hype, EE’s network for the average Joe wondering around Britain is terrible. The sooner they realise this, fix it and drop their extortinate price the better.

    1. Avatar photo Gig says:

      I lived in rural Hampshire for a long time and almost everyone without exception is with O2 or Vodafone as EE and Three simply do not work indoors. As I’ve said, it’s embarrassing that EE can’t match Vodafone’s geographic reach even after 10 years of 4G.

  14. Avatar photo Declan McGuinness says:

    Lovely a 4G signal with 1 bar strength from EE not even strong enough to make a phone call

    1. Avatar photo Jon says:

      On-screen bars are only a rough guide, different phones can often report different bars for the same carrier/cell. 1bar is still a bar.

  15. Avatar photo anon says:

    From the people that brought you no fibre.
    Until they got forced to by altnets

    1. Avatar photo Tyler says:

      Some people on here moan about everything….
      Worse than women

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