Still waiting for 4G to arrive in your neighbourhood? This £1 billion deal might help

Funding from both the government and four industry players will go towards building a common network in rural areas of the country.
Written by Daphne Leprince-Ringuet, Contributor

5G may have been under the spotlight recently, but many countryside roamers are still waiting to be blessed with its predecessor, 4G. A new deal signed between the UK government and four network operators this week, however, will give users in rural parts of the country reason to be optimistic: the deal promises to deliver 4G to 95% of the UK by 2025.

Network operators EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone have agreed to split a £1 billion ($1.29 billion) bill with the UK government to build the infrastructure in rural areas that is necessary to deliver 4G connectivity. 

The investment will fund the construction of a network of new and existing phone masts that all the operators will share, which will avoid the unnecessary duplication of infrastructure.

The scheme, dubbed the Shared Rural Network (SRN), will let customers from each network connect to the masts without having to perform any manual configuration. It will provide guaranteed coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000 km of roads, according to the government.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF)

"For too many people in the countryside, a bad phone signal is a daily frustration," said digital secretary Oliver Dowden. 

The agreement has been in the making since last year, and includes a £532 million ($687 million) from the four operators to close almost all so-called "partial not-spots", which are areas where there is currently coverage from at least one, but not all operators. This is the case for about a third of the country.

On top of industry funding, the government will dish out another £500 million ($645.7 million) to eliminate total not-spots, which concern 13% of UK land, and where there is no coverage from any operator. The government's contribution was prompted by the need to compensate for the lack of commercial return for the networks to invest in infrastructure for total not-spots, due to the lack of potential customers. 

Vodafone CEO Nick Jeffrey said: "A rural postcode should not be a barrier to receiving a decent mobile signal. (The SRN) will mean an end to mobile 'not-spots' for people in the more remote areas."

While implementing the deal will likely come with new challenges, such as reaching agreements with site owners or working out last-minute details, James Barford, director of telecoms at Enders Analysis, said that the SRN has now achieved the bulk of the hard work.

"There is no reason to believe that the target won't be achieved by the 2025 deadline," he told ZDNet. "The biggest barrier is getting operators to agree, especially on fees and network planning, and the level of detail in the deal shows that this has happened."

Albeit not without complications: last month, it was reported that the operators were hitting a stumbling block over costs, with rival network providers arguing that BT was asking too high a price to share its equipment. 

With the SRN now signed off, however, better connectivity is looking like a tangible prospect for those browsing in remote areas of the country. Barford hailed the announcement as a positive step, but nevertheless argued that the statistics released by the government have to be put into perspective.

"What the 95% target means is that 95% of the land area of the country will have coverage from at least one mobile operator," he said. "The geographical measure is a bit of an arbitrary one, because there are a lot of areas where people don't roam or go to. It might have been better to target areas where people actually live and travel to, like roads or homes."

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After crunching the numbers provided by the government, Enders' analysts also concluded that the biggest change will happen at the level of partial not-spots, rather than total not-spots. While total not-spots will reduce from 13% to 5% of the country, found the analysts, partial not-spots will more than halve, from 34% to 16% of the country. 

In other words, more consumers are likely to find that they have a greater choice of operators. "That's a great improvement," said Barford, "but there could have been more focus on consumer needs as opposed to a pure land-area criteria."

In any case, the news will likely be welcomed by homes and businesses in rural areas, while they wait for the government to deliver on the promise to bring gigabit-capable broadband to harder-to-reach areas of the country, which was announced as the final goal of a £5 billion ($6.45 billion) investment last year.

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