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Report says rural extension of 4G is behind schedule


Mark Say Managing Editor

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The Government’s plans to extend 4G mobile connectivity in rural areas are running behind schedule, according to a new National Audit Office (NAO) report.

Titled Supporting mobile connectivity, it focuses on the Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, funded by the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) and the UK’s four mobile network operators – EE, Three, Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone.

It is aimed at achieving 95% 4G coverage across the UK landmass by December 2025, up from 91.4% when the programme launched in March 2020; but by autumn 2023 coverage had reached 92.7% and only EE had reached its interim target.

This makes it unclear with the programme will meet the 95% target on time, the report says.

Reasons for delay vary. Government and the network operators took longer than expected to finalise mast locations, agree site sharing and access, and procure services. Progress on the programme has also been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, opposition from local campaign groups and local authorities’ capacity to handle planning applications.

Rising costs

Estimated costs have risen significantly, due to high inflation and other factors, although the total is not yet clear.

As a result of cost pressures, the mobile operators may no longer be able to deliver the level of coverage required within the current funding, which includes £501 million of government funding, and £532 million of private sector funding.

Under the terms of their grant agreement with the Government, they bear any additional costs; but if costs are excessive, they may not be obliged to meet individual targets.

In addition, there is limited evidence of specific benefits for extending mobile coverage into remote areas, the report says.

It also points out that, while DSIT anticipates an average download speed of 7Mbps in rural areas, it acknowledges the speed will be lower in some while advances in technology are likely to require faster speeds.

5G ambition

DSIT also has an ambition for standalone 5G to be available in all populated areas by 2030. The report says this will require significant investment from network operators and DSIT will be reliant on accompanying action from other government departments and bodies that may have competing priorities for funding.

The NAO makes a number of recommendations, including improved oversight of the network operators on the programme to ensure delivery of 4G performance.

For 5G, it recommends that: DSIT’s Wireless Infrastructure Strategy should establish target dates for taking key decisions about the outcomes it is seeking; the department should determine the combination of enablers required to deliver 5G connectivity; collect data on the market’s ability to meet the UK’s future 5G connectivity needs; and learn lessons from delivering earlier digital infrastructure.

Head of the NAO Gareth Davies said: Demand for mobile data access is expected to increase as data-intensive services become more popular and new technologies enable new uses, and government has set out a clear ambition for improved connectivity.

“It is unclear whether the Shared Rural Network programme will achieve its coverage target on time; costs are higher than anticipated; and government has not clearly articulated the benefits of aspects of the programme, including increased connectivity in sparsely populated areas.

“As government develops its 5G strategy, it will need to more clearly define what it is aiming to achieve in different parts of the UK and economic sectors, so that limited resources can be targeted where they deliver most value.”

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