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4G speeds could finally get a boost across the UK after networks agree to share masts

The so-called Shared Rural Network (SRN) Agreement will see Three, Vodafone, O2 and EE (BT) working together to extend 4G services

A deal which will see 4G speeds across the UK get a dramatic boost has been signed off after months of negotiations, according to reports. 

 The so-called Shared Rural Network (SRN) Agreement, which was announced in October, is a £1bn deal designed to enable Three, Vodafone, O2 and EE (BT) to work together in a bid to extend the coverage of 4G services to 95% of the UK by 2025.

For 4G networks, Ofcom defines coverage based on the minimum signal strength required to deliver a 95% probability of making a 90-second telephone call, and a 95% chance of getting a download speed of at least 2Mbits/sec.

The Government had previously planned to hit these coverage levels by 2022 but, following reports from Ofcom that coverage is currently around the 66% mark, there is still some way to go. Under the plan, Ofcom will have the power to issue fines up to 10 per cent of an operator’s gross revenue if they fail to meet these targets.

The problem with boosting coverage, particularly in rural areas where speeds are lacking the most, is that investing in the infrastructure needed is expensive and isn’t a cost any of the individual operators, nor the Government, are willing to take on by themselves.

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Under the initial SRN plan, mobile operators were tasked with establishing a new organisation using the government’s investment, coupled with £532m of their own investment (over the 20-year lifetime of the scheme), to share existing masts and infrastructure. This would “close almost all partial not-spots”, which are areas where residents and businesses can only get coverage from at least one, but not all, operators. 

If successful, this would increase mobile coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000 kilometres of roads. The plan also accounts for indirect improvements over time, including a boost to ‘in-car’ coverage on around 45,000 km of road, and better indoor coverage in around 1.2m business premises and homes.

The Government’s commitment of £500m is to then “eliminate total not-spots” – the harder to reach areas where is no coverage at all – by building new masts. 

However, since the plan was first unveiled, reports suggest that the networks couldn’t agree on the fine print of the deal and have only just come to a compromise. A compromise that has seen the ambition of the original plan scaled back considerably. Exact details are lacking at the time of writing but we’re expected to learn more during Wednesday’s budget.  

Chancellor Rishi Sunak is also set to reveal more about the Government’s £5bn investment into the rollout of gigabit broadband during his first budget later this week. This investment will support the rollout of gigabit broadband in the “hardest to reach 20% of the country” by 2025. 

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