There’s a scene in the magnificent series The Thick of It, where a politician attempts to obtain a mobile phone signal by climbing up a child’s slide.
Despite the comic absurdity of the scene, many viewers identified with the challenge of being in a rural area trying to capture a stable phone signal.
Mobile connectivity is often patchy or non-existent in sparsely populated counties, or hilly regions.
That breeds frustration, whether you’re a rural resident, a struggling small business or a first-time tourist.
It’s why the UK’s big four mobile network operators agreed last year to create a Shared Rural Network, pooling resources in areas where it’s cost-effective to do so.
A shared objective
The Shared Rural Network was devised by the UK Government as a way of forcing operators to eliminate network-specific notspots in areas where other firms offer coverage.
It’s clearly not worth all four mobile networks building separate masts in the Brecon Beacons or Ochils, to serve a small number of daily users.
Instead, the SRN encouraged the reciprocal sharing of existing masts and shared construction of new ones, spreading the cost and burden of rural connectivity across the various operators.
In March 2020, BT, Vodafone, O2 and Three UK reached a final accord on how to extend 4G mobile (and mobile broadband) coverage to 95 per cent of the UK by the end of 2025.
They pledged £532 million, with the UK Government putting in roughly the same amount.
Network expansion would be managed by a jointly-owned enterprise called Digital Mobile Spectrum, with commitments enforced by Ofcom under threat of fines for missed targets.
Coverage would be increased (or added) to over 275,000 premises, plus an estimated 10,000 miles of roads.
At the time, this was seen as a triumph for consumers. Yet things haven’t gone entirely according to plan…
Concerns emerged early last year, when BT announced it would continue to run some of the masts it acquired from the purchase of EE on a standalone basis.
The other three networks would share responsibility for building new masts in certain areas without BT, meaning there may still be duplicate masts and network-specific notspots.
Little else happened until January this year, when the big four networks agreed to build and share 222 new 4G mobile masts.
Over half of these are in Scotland – which covers three-fifths as much land as England despite hosting less than a tenth of the population.
Mast construction is scheduled to begin later this year, but it’ll be another three years before this batch is completed – and more will be required to achieve 95 per cent national coverage.
Local objections could stall mast construction for months or years, while installing power supplies might also lead to delays.
Better rural connectivity is undoubtedly coming, but progress on the Shared Rural Network remains frustratingly slow, over a year after that first high-profile announcement.