The UK’s mobile operators wants two more years to complete the first phase of the Shared Rural Network (SRN), despite fears that such a delay could hinder the government’s wider connectivity goals 

Vodafone, Three UK, and Virgin Media O2 have requested that the UK government grant an extension of up to two years to complete the SRN, according to reports from the Telegraph. 

The SRN is a £1 billion scheme designed to improve the 4G coverage in rural areas across the UK. It is a joint project between the UK’s four mobile operators and the government, aiming to help expand to expand the geographic coverage of 4G to 95% of UK by the end of 2025. This involves upgrading existing infrastructure and deploying new equipment, which will be shared by all four operators.  

The SRN is backed by £500 million of public funding, with a further £500 million provided by the mobile network operators. 

In the project’s first phase, operators were given until June 2024 to ensure that 88% of the country’s landmass has 4G coverage. This deadline is seemingly unreachable, however, with the operators citing the impact of the pandemic and issues in securing planning permission for sites as the primary causes for the delays. 

Additionally, the Telegraph report speculates that Three and Vodafone are contributing to the delay with their slower rollout, saying they are “miles behind”, as a result of their potential merger. The operators deny these accusations. 

The implications of a two year delay to the SRN are not clear, though it seems likely that it would jeopardise the government’s target of delivering 4G to the whole country by 2027, although operators have insisted this is not the case. 

“We are on track to deliver the overall January 2027 target for 4G geographic coverage under the SRN programme having already built 100 sites and secured planning on 80% of the new sites that we have committed to. However, we have recently written to the government asking for an extension to the June 2024 interim target which was agreed immediately prior to the Covid lockdowns and has been impacted by delays associated with the pandemic,” said a Three UK spokesperson. 

But while this delay may be understandable given the environment the mobile operators found themselves in in 2020, for those living in rural areas it could spell another two years of poor connectivity and all the challenges that come with it. 

“Viewed as a necessity in urban areas, the Government sees mobile connectivity in the countryside as a luxury, and it’s preventing many rural businesses from even operating in the 21st century,” said Mark Tufnell, president of the Country Land and Business Association. 

“This delay will lead to missed opportunities, increased costs, supply chain disruptions, and stunted innovation across the rural economy – undermining the livelihoods of those living within it.Unless the Government urgently acts to minimise delays, rural communities will continue to suffer and their potential remain unrealised.” 

Is the UK on track to meet its coverage goals? Join the operators in discussion at the UK’s largest digital economy event, Connected Britain 2024 

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