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This briefing looks at mobile coverage in the UK with a focus on rural 4G mobile coverage. It discusses government targets and policies aimed at improving rural mobile coverage.

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
  • Vodafone

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

For 4G, the government aims for 95% coverage by 2025 as part of the Shared Rural Network (SRN) agreement. This target was restated in the 2023 Wireless Infrastructure Strategy.

On 5G, the government had set a target for the majority of the population to be reached by 2027. In May 2022 EE said that it had achieved that level of coverage. The Wireless Infrastructure Strategy set a new target of “nationwide coverage of standalone 5G to all populated areas of the UK by 2030”.

Telecommunications is a reserved power, so the UK government has primary responsibility for setting targets and policy. However, the delivery of mobile infrastructure projects often overlaps with devolved powers such as planning.

What is UK mobile coverage like today?

Ofcom, the telecommunications regulator, records areas with mobile coverage indoors and outdoors at specific premises, over geographical areas and on major roads.

According to Ofcom’s 2023 Connected Nations report, 93% of the UK landmass had 4G coverage from at least one operator. 71% of the UK landmass had 4G coverage from all operators. 7% had no 4G coverage.

There have been limited improvements in geographic mobile coverage over the past few years. 4G coverage reached 91% of the UK landmass in 2019. The Shared Rural Network agreement (discussed below) aims to increase this to 95% by 2025.

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.

Mobile coverage at local areas can be explored at Ofcom’s mobile coverage checker.

The 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.

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.

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.

Three of the MNOs (Vodafone, Virgin Media O2, and Three) are reportedly struggling to meet their interim coverage targets, which they are required to achieve by the end of June 2024.

Other measures to improve rural mobile coverage

The government has also introduced policy reforms to make it easier for the mobile industry to build new infrastructure. These include:

  • reforms to planning rules to allow for taller and wider masts and
  • reforms to the Electronic Communications Code, which governs the rights of telecoms companies to access land (through wayleaves and leases).

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. The Library briefing, Building broadband and mobile infrastructure, covers these reforms in more detail.

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.

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