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October 23, 2023
Three of the UK’s four mobile network operators have written to the government asking for an extension of the deadline for their coverage commitments.
We know this because the Telegraph got hold of a letter signed by Vodafone, VMO2 and Three, asking the government to extend an interim target of 88% geographical coverage by June 2024 under the Shared Rural Network (SRN) scheme. It’s not known whether EE was invited to co-sign the letter but it hasn’t, presumably because it expects to hit that target.
The SRN is a UK government initiative to try to eliminate ‘not-spots’. The first phase involves trying to expand full 4G coverage – places that have a choice of all four operators – as much as possible. Those are referred to as partial not-spots and are the focus of this letter, it seems (we haven’t seen it). There is no public money being contributed to that phase, but the ultimate aim, to provide coverage to those few remotelocations in Scotland that currently have none, will get £500 million from the tax-payer, with 95% geographical coverage the ultimate aim.
Ultimately, the government is hoping to complete the whole SRN project by early 2027, but the fact that three of the four operators are struggling to keep up, calls that timeline into question. All of them sent statements to the Telegraph, with Three blaming the pandemic for falling behind, Vodafone merely stating it remains committed to the project and VMO2 insisting it’s really close to hitting its individual targets.
We understand EE had offered access to some of its sites at normal commercial rates but it seems they preferred to collaborate over building new ones instead. While that’s an understandable business decision, it does make the failure to hit their targets all the more awkward. Additionally the two biggest laggards seem to be Vodafone and Three. They recently reiterated ambitious 5G coverage ambitions as a major reason for allowing them to merge, so it’s hard to see this announcement helping that cause.
While it’s a bit embarrassing for these three operators to have to admit they’re struggling to hit soft coverage targets, the broader significance of this news is limited. The government will probably tut and then give them a bit more time, while the Telegraph is framing this more as another infrastructure failure by the Tories. But at the very least it gives ammunition to those seeking to undermine the case for the Vodafone Three merger.
As the Editorial Director of Telecoms.com, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Telecoms.com Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Telecoms.com Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno
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