January 8, 2024
SRN Programme Update
This article has been replicated with permission from the Shared Rural Network.
Progress on the Shared Rural Network continues across all elements of the programme.
On the publicly funded element of the programme, which aims to provide new coverage in total not spot (TNS) areas, there are now approximately 25 planning applications validated and in the planning system. This serves as a reminder that all mast applications have to go through the planning process in the same way as most other forms of development. Given the remote and rural nature of the masts, we anticipate a high level of scrutiny. We have already seen applications being both approved and refused, with operators and their suppliers working closely with planning departments to ensure applications have all the necessary information needed to make a fair and balanced decision. There are currently live planning applications in the Western Isles, Highland, Argyll & Bute, Stirling, and Perth & Kinross.
However, not all proposed mast locations are at the planning stage yet and site surveys are still to be carried out. Carrying out these initial site surveys and being able to physically carry out investigations allows a final decision to be made on whether to progress with a mast at that site and identify the best location for all parties. As more surveys are completed, we continue to see a reduction in mast numbers than originally planned, whilst still delivering the necessary coverage targets.
On the industry funded element of the programme targeting partial not spots (PNS), it has been a busy six months for the mobile network operators with thousands of upgrades and over 190 new masts being delivered across the country. With sites from the Orkney Islands down to Devon, the operators continue to deliver PNS improvements to those areas with coverage from at least one, but not all operators. Coverage Uplifts from PNS improvements mean that residents, businesses and visitors are now enjoying faster and more reliable data speeds as well as better quality voice calls. You can click on the link below to take you to the press releases which we have collated on the SRN news page. If you have any partial not spot specific queries, please contact the operators directly.
The process of enabling sharing of the Home Office Emergency Services Network’s Extended Area Service (EAS) masts is also progressing. Over 150 masts have been put into design & planning by Building Digital UK (BDUK) and are with Home Office suppliers. 50 sites are now fully upgraded in terms of structural upgrades making them suitable for the SRN Programme. Collaborative work continues between BDUK, the Home Office, DMSL and the MNOs in terms of making sites fully available going into 2024.
Should you wish to know more about planned improvements in your area please visit srn.org.uk/forecast-coverage-improvements/
Yesterday, Ofcom published its Connected Nations 2023 UK Report on progress on the availability of broadband and mobile services in the UK. Included in the report are updates on 4G geographic coverage from the four mobile network operators and progress on the Shared Rural Network. We've extracted these updates for you to read here, with a link to the full report below.
4G Geographic Coverage (page 42)
Overall, 4G geographic coverage across the UK has not increased substantially compared with 2022.
From the data reported to us, we can see that percentage coverage by each MNO is 87% for BT/EE, 82% for Virgin Media O2, 80% for Three, and 83% for Vodafone. Therefore, the UK landmass covered by individual MNOs remains consistent, ranging from 80-87% compared to the previous year's 80-87%. As the majority of the UK landmass is rural, rural coverage levels are similar, with significantly higher urban geographic coverage.
Significant differences remain in geographic 4G coverage across the UK’s nations. As of September 2023, MNOs provided geographic coverage ranging from 92-95% in England; 88-92% in Northern Ireland; 59-76% in Scotland; and 73-85% in Wales. This means that compared with 2022 the coverage range for England is up 1 percentage point at the upper bound, up in Scotland by 1 percentage point at the upper and 2 percent at the lower bound, and consistent in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Public policy interventions, including update on the Shared Rural Network (SRN) (page51)
MNOs have continued with the programme of work towards their obligations to provide 4G coverage across 88% of the UK landmass (to be achieved by the end of June 2024). In total MNOs have now deployed more than 190 new sites since 2020 to meet their SRN targets, with 35 new sites added this year. They have also upgraded thousands of sites with a combination of additional spectrum and higher operating power. Three of the four MNOs have added in the region of one percentage point of landmass coverage in the last year, and individual MNO’s 4G geographic coverage now stands as: BT/EE (87.5%), Vodafone (83.3%), Virgin Media O2 (81.7%) and Three (80.5%). As a result, 4G coverage from at least one MNO has reached 92.7%.
Three MNOs still have substantial progress to make to meet their obligations in the coming months. We note reports that three MNOs have approached the UK Government to ask for an extension to their 2024 deadline. However, we continue to prepare to assess MNO compliance with the 88% threshold and associated nations obligations in summer 2024.
The UK Government-funded elements of the SRN - which is focussed on ‘total not spot’ areas (TNS) and is due to complete in early 2027 - are also progressing. Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited (DMSL) is managing the programme and continuing to advance the required procurements which will underpin this. The MNOs and their suppliers are currently establishing where masts should go to deliver the best coverage by carrying out site suitability surveys. The first TNS planning application has been approved for a mast on South Uist in the Western Isles, with more applications starting to be lodged.
The process of enabling sharing of the Home Office Emergency Services Network’s Extended Area Service (EAS) masts is also progressing, with 154 masts put into design & planning by Building Digital UK (BDUK). 50 sites are now fully upgraded, making them structurally suitable for the SRN Programme. In May, BDUK announced that the first EAS mast upgrade for SRN was activated in Lockerbie, Scotland. Collaborative work continues between BDUK, the Home Office, DMSL and the MNOs to make further EAS sites fully available in 2024.
This new coverage will sit alongside a range of other public policy interventions, including the Scottish Government’s 4G infill programme, a £28.75m investment to tackle up to 55 total not spots across rural Scotland. In October 2023, the Scottish Government confirmed that 54 of the 55 proposed sites for the programme had been built, marking progress from the 29 sites that were built and activated as of September 2022, with the remaining site in progress.
As well as issuing the main UK Connected Nations Report, Ofcom has also issued individual Nations Reports which have similar updates on the SRN. You can read these and the main report via the link below.
About Building Mobile Britain
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Head of Policy and Communications
Tel: 07887 911 076