Vodafone UK and Virgin Media O2 (VM O2) have both recently trumpeted advances with the £1 billion ($1.27 billion) network initiative they are undertaking with two other mobile network operators and the government to bring 4G to rural areas of the U.K.

Under the Shared Rural Network (SRN) initiative launched in 2020, VM O2 announced in early May that it had deployed its 150th site and said “dozens more sites” are set to go live in the coming weeks. Later in the same month, Vodafone said it had deployed its 250th SRN site.

However, a new report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), an influential parliamentary committee that is responsible for overseeing government expenditures, has warned that the MNOs may not be able to reach interim 4G targets set by the government, and also noted that the scheme may cost the government more than was originally expected.

Moreover, the report is highly critical of government support for, and spending on, initiatives to support the deployment of 5G throughout the U.K. Noting that the government has so far spent about £400 million on “developing possible uses for 5G,” PAC said it is “unconvinced about what it has achieved to date” for this investment. 

Under pressure in the UK

Under the SRN, the U.K.’s big four MNOs – EE, Three, VM O2 and Vodafone – are targeted with serving 4G across 95% of the landmass by the end of 2025. The first phase of the program required all operators to commit to upgrade or build mobile infrastructure and extend the reach of their 4G networks to eliminate “partial not-spots,” defined as areas which receive coverage from at least one operator, but not all.

The second phase of the SRN, publicly funded by the U.K. government, is due to be completed in 2027 and will develop new shared masts to bring 4G connectivity to areas with no existing mobile service, or “total not-spots.”

The MNOs are providing total investment of £532 million to fund coverage in partial not-spots, while government funding of about £501 million aims to eliminate total not-spots. In addition, the government is making available up to 292 masts in remote parts of the U.K. that it is building as part of its 4G-based Emergency Services Network program. Overall, the SRN is expected to provide coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads across the U.K.

According to PAC, four years after the scheme was launched, 4G landmass coverage has improved from 91.4% to 93.1%. However, to meet the 95% target, progress will need to continue at the same rate as the past year, even though the remaining locations will be even harder to reach and connect. 

In addition, PAC noted that the government’s £501 million investment in the program is subject to cost pressures, which combined with “delivery challenges” means installing new masts will cost more than expected. 

Thus the DSIT “is not yet certain by how much the program’s costs will rise as a result of these pressures, how much of any cost increase will be borne by the taxpayer and whether cost pressures will affect mobile network operators’ ability to achieve coverage targets,” PAC observed.

The report also queried what will happen to people in the 5% of the landmass that will not have 4G connectivity, noting it’s not even yet clear where these areas will be. “New technologies – such as low orbiting satellites – are emerging very fast. The government needs to consider these in conjunction with its other policies to ensure investment produces the most favorable results,” PAC observed.

In terms of 5G, the government has also set the ambition of deploying standalone 5G in all populated areas by 2030, although it conceded that it has no control over the level of 5G coverage achieved. As things stand, only Vodafone UK and VM O2 have launched 5G SA networks in the nation, while Three UK and Vodafone are banking on their proposed merger to help speed further deployment. BT/EE has hinted it could launch 5G SA later in 2024. 

Meanwhile, Ofcom’s latest Connected Nations report published in December 2023 indicated that while 5G non-standalone population coverage is now at a relatively high level of 93% of U.K. premises (from at least one MNO), landmass coverage is much lower, ranging from 11% to 38% at the high confidence level of availability, and 6% to 26% at the very high confidence level.

Next steps for 5G

In its conclusions, the PAC report has advised the government to work more closely with the MNOs to gain certainty on cost increases and ensure coverage targets are met. It also wants to see the provision of more meaningful data on 4G and 5G coverage, ensuring that the data reflects people’s actual experiences. 

Notably, this will be the last report on the topic from the PAC in its current form, with committee members expected to be replaced following the U.K. General Election on July 4, 2024. According to convention, PAC is chaired by a member of the main opposition party. 

“We therefore encourage our successor committee to keep a close eye on the above issues concerning both 4G and 5G mobile connectivity, and to continue to hold the [DSIT] to account for progress on both,” the report concluded.

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