11 June 2019
Rural “not-spots” could soon be a thing of the past after the four UK mobile phone networks announced plans to join forces and boost connectivity for underserved communities.
The chief executive officers from O2, EE, Three and Vodafone met with culture secretary Jeremy Wright in late March and said they would allow each other reciprocal access to rural infrastructure to improve competition.
The new company, which would be overseen by the government and regulator Ofcom, would allocate funds for the construction of masts.
However, all four mobile bosses also said that the proposal is predicated on Ofcom removing the coverage obligations it has attached to 5G spectrum licences that it will be auctioning later this year.
O2 UK CEO Mark Evans mentioned the plan earlier this year when O2 announced its Q1 2019 financial results.
“In addition to progressing our 5G plans, we are working to establish an industry-led shared rural network for the benefit of consumers and businesses across the UK,” he said. “This demonstrates our commitment to invest for the future with mobile connectivity one of the UK’s most powerful opportunities to strengthen the economy and improve the lives of British people.”
Funding for the company would come from a reduction in the £200 million annual licence fees paid by the industry.
“We’re encouraged to see mobile companies working together on proposals to improve coverage and would consider carefully any firm plans from the industry,” an Ofcom spokesperson said.
The news follows hot on the heels of a recent report published by the House of Lords Select Committee on the Rural Economy, which called on the government to develop a rural strategy in order to help affected rural economies.
In its report, Time for a strategy on the rural economy (see page 13 for its recommendations), the committee laid out a number of recommendations to tackle the challenges facing the rural economy.
Looking at digital connectivity in particular, it said that the government should direct Ofcom to conduct a review of the Universal Services Obligation (USO) as soon as possible, focusing on what minimum commitment would be needed to sustain and support rural businesses and communities, especially in more remote areas, and including both download and upload speeds.
The report also welcomed the proposal that Ofcom reviews the option of introducing roaming in rural areas to address partial “not-spots” and urged the watchdog to start this process as a matter of urgency.
In addition, it said government and Ofcom should encourage mobile network operators to share transmission masts more often in appropriate rural locations.
“Rural communities and the economies in them have been ignored and underrated for too long,” said chair of the committee, Lord Foster of Bath. “We must act now to reverse this trend, but we can no longer allow the clear inequalities between the urban and rural to continue unchecked. A rural strategy would address challenges and realise potential in struggling and under-performing areas and allow vibrant and thriving areas to develop further. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Tim Breitmeyer, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said the membership organisation was “pleased that the unique circumstances of the rural economy have been recognised by the Lords” which advocates for a dedicated rural strategy.