Mobile services are now at the heart of how most people stay in touch and go online. Ofcom reported in 2020 that mobile phone take-up is close to universal, with 98% of homes having them. Mobile data consumption continues to increase year-on-year. Average monthly data use was 27% higher in 2020 compared to 2019.
What is UK mobile coverage like today?
Ofcom records areas with mobile coverage indoors and outdoors at specific premises, over geographical areas and on major roads.
According to Ofcom’s Connected Nations 2021 report, 81% of premises had 4G data coverage and 93% of premises had indoor voice call coverage from all four mobile operators (EE, Three, O2 and Vodafone) in September 2021.
92% of the UK landmass had 4G coverage from at least one operator. 4% of the UK landmass had no good mobile signal at all.
Coverage varies in different parts of the country, with urban areas having better coverage than rural areas. Countries and regions with high proportions of rural areas, such as Scotland, Wales and the North East, have the lowest 4G landmass coverage.
There have been limited improvements in geographic mobile coverage over the past three years, with 4G landmass coverage plateauing at 91% in 2019. This is expected to improve to 95% by 2025 due to the Shared Rural Network agreement (explained below).
How are UK mobile networks built?
The roll-out of mobile services and infrastructure in the UK is led by private Mobile Network Operators (MNOs). There are four MNOs that own and operate UK mobile networks:
- EE (owned by BT),
- O2 (now a joint venture with Virgin Media),
- Three (Hutchinson 3G) and
The MNOs take commercial decisions about where to build masts and deliver services. Detailed roll-out and infrastructure plans are not publicly available.
Our briefing, Building broadband and mobile infrastructure provides information on the permissions needed to build mobile masts, such as planning rules and land access rights.
Government targets on mobile coverage
The Levelling-Up White Paper included two targets for mobile coverage by 2030:
- that 4G mobile coverage is available nationwide, and
- that the majority of the population has access to a 5G signal.
Nationwide 4G coverage means that 95% of the UK landmass should receive signal from at least one mobile operator.
The 2030 timeframe aligns with the Government’s other levelling up missions. However, the Government says it aims to reach the mobile coverage targets earlier. For 4G, the Government aims for 95% coverage by 2025 as part of the Shared Rural Network (SRN) agreement.
On 5G, the Government aims for the majority of population to be reached by 2027. The Government said the 5G target will be reconsidered as part of its forthcoming Wireless Infrastructure Strategy.
Shared rural network
The Shared Rural Network (SRN) is an agreement between the UK Government and mobile industry announced in March 2020 to improve rural mobile coverage by 2025.
Under the deal, mobile industry operators will invest around £500 million to fill ‘partial not-spots’ (spots with coverage from at least one but not all mobile operators). The mobile operators have committed to legally binding coverage obligations to support this commitment.
The Government will invest up to £500 million on new masts in ‘total not-spots’ (areas with no coverage from any operator). This part of the SRN will also include masts built as part of the Home Office’s new Emergency Services Network, which is also forecast to improve rural mobile coverage.
Together these commitments are expected to bring 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by 2025.
There’s a dedicated website for the SRN that provides FAQs, coverage forecasts and updates.
Other measures to improve rural mobile coverage
The Government is also bringing forward policy reforms to make it easier for the mobile industry to build new infrastructure. These include:
These reforms aim to help address rural mobile coverage and the roll-out of new 5G technology by making it easier to build and upgrade mobile masts. Our briefing, Building broadband and mobile infrastructure covers these proposed reforms.
Rural mobile coverage will also likely benefit from the release of new radio wave spectrum by Ofcom in 2021. The 700 MHz spectrum band was auctioned in March 2021. Its relatively low frequency makes it well-suited for providing coverage to rural areas.
The Scottish Government has a programme for funding new mobile masts in Scotland, called the Scottish 4G Infill programme. The £25 million programme will see around 47 new masts built in remote parts of Scotland.