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EE hits shared rural network targets, rivals don't

EE has hit government targets for the first phase of the UK's shared rural network scheme almost six months early, but its major rivals are keeping schtum about their own progress, or indeed lack thereof.

Mary Lennighan

January 16, 2024

3 Min Read

The UK's mobile operators are shooting for an Ofcom-imposed deadline that should see them build out their 4G networks to eliminate partial not-spots by the end of June; partial not-spots are areas that have mobile coverage from at least one operator, but not all. The regulator is looking for all operators to cover 88% of the country's landmass.

EE says it has done its part, and has extended its network to 99% of the population, thanks to the deployment of network coverage to 1,600 rural communities under the scheme.

That figure is to applauded, of course, but it's worth noting that it's only 100 more than the operator had reached as of April last year, so it's not exactly moving lightning fast on this one.

That said, it's all relative. EE has made significantly more progress than its domestic competitors, albeit from a stronger starting position. Let's not forget that the telco initially was not involved in the SRN, claiming it already had enough sites in the right places. It has changed its tune in the past couple of years, choosing instead to shout about its progress in phase one...the phase that it believed it had already nailed back in 2021.

Nonetheless, it has hit the Ofcom target. And we can safely assume that Vodafone, Virgin Media O2 and Three have not, because we would surely have heard about it otherwise.

We already knew the other three were struggling. In October the Telegraph published details of a letter they co-signed and sent to the government asking for longer to fill those partial not-spots. That was particularly bad PR for Vodafone and Three, given that they are hanging their proposed merger plan on a commitment to jointly improve coverage in the UK.

Both said they were cracking on with SRN rollout, with Three insisting that it will hit the next target in January 2027; it will likely miss the June target due to delays resulting from the pandemic, apparently.

Virgin Media O2, meanwhile, said it might meet the June target – if not, it will come close – but clearly could do with a bit more time.

There has been nothing from the government on moving that deadline, but ultimately there really isn't much it can do if the three operators don't hit the target, other than to urge them to get a shift on.

The January 2027 target is arguably more important. While phase one of the project is essentially about choice, phase two should see the mobile operators provide coverage in areas where there is none at present. Or as EE puts it, it will bring the development of shared masts to extend 4G connectivity to places that don't have it.

Seems simple enough, but Ofcom itself has worded the target in a very woolly fashion: "the deadline for delivery of publicly funded coverage improvements in total not-spot areas is early 2027," it says.

"Improvements" are pretty hard to quantify, which might be why the three laggard telcos are not too worried.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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