The UK's communications regulator Ofcom today said that it will release more airwaves in 2020 to auction for mobile network operators, while also removing the legal requirement for them to extend their coverage to more remote areas.
The move comes after the announcement last week that the government is working with Vodafone, O2, EE and Three in a £1 billion deal to expand 4G coverage to 95% of the country by 2025.
Airwaves are a finite resource managed by Ofcom, and the rights to transmit signals over specific bands are sold in an auction system. Network operators can bid to determine how much spectrum they get and for which specific frequencies.
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To ensure that operators extend the reach of 4G to more isolated regions, Ofcom previously intended to rule that the two winning bidders should have to extend their outdoor data coverage to 90% of the UK's land area by 2024, long after 5G is due to be rolled out in many metropolitan areas.
Last week, however, the government put forward an agreement with Vodafone, O2, EE and Three that would let each of them individually reach 92% coverage by 2025, with the collective effect of extending coverage to 95% of the UK.
Ofcom said: "In light of the commitments, we are no longer proposing to include coverage obligations in our auction. This is because the companies' new agreement will achieve higher coverage than the requirements we could have set through an auction."
The removal of coverage requirements does means, however, that the companies are no longer legally tied to achieving the targets laid out by the government. Ofcom said that it will therefore still "write conditions" into the operators' spectrum licenses, and "monitor and report" on their progress in its yearly Connected Nations report.
Instead of coverage obligations, the new agreement will rely on a new shared rural network (SRN) to connect isolated areas. A £1 billion budget was announced for the project, divided between £532 million industry funding from the four operators, and a further £500 million from the government.
This will go towards building a network of new and existing phone masts that all the operators will share to run their networks, and therefore avoid the unnecessary duplication of infrastructure.
In addition, infrastructure built as part of the emergency services network (ESN) and owned by the government will be made available to the four operators, which it claimed will expand geographical coverage to an additional 2% of the country in the most remote locations.
Digital secretary Nicky Morgan said: "Brokering an agreement for mast-sharing between networks alongside new investment in mobile infrastructure will mean people get good 4G signal no matter where they are or which provider they're with."
The government claimed that this will provide additional mobile coverage for 280,000 premises, and ultimately close almost all "partial not-spots" – areas where there is coverage from only one, and not all operators. This is still the case for 22% of UK premises, according to Ofcom's latest report on connectivity.
Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at service comparison website uSwitch, said: "The idea of allowing national roaming between networks in rural areas has been considered many times over the years, but ultimately proved too difficult to implement.
"This solution could greatly improve the coverage for residents in rural areas, while giving them a wider choice of networks and tariff options."
It is not the first time that operators have attempted to join forces to increase 4G coverage in rural areas, but until now they had failed to compromise. The four providers, however, have now defined the terms on which they will share existing masts; and the new SRN scheme will also let each of them invest amounts that are reflective of their current position in rural coverage.
They reached this agreement last May and said then that they were prepared to go ahead with the plan on the condition that the government would provide some funding and remove coverage requirements from the spectrum auction. Both demands have now been met.
Neudegg, however, warned that this doesn't mean that the promised extra connectivity will come in the near future. "While potentially exciting, this agreement still isn't signed and has several legal hurdles to clear, so people in rural areas need to maintain pressure on the government and network providers to get this over the line," he said.
The SRN proposal is still subject to legal agreement, and the government hopes to reach this early next year.