The UK’s Shared Rural Network (SRN) is revived: let the collaboration begin
- A 222 mast building programme is going to kick off the £1 billion SRN
- First launched in March last year, Covid seems to have knocked it off course
- The networks are keen to stress the build is all about 4G, Please don’t burn them down
UK networks O2, Three and Vodafone have signed up to a network mast sharing deal. The three networks are to build 222 new 4G mobile masts to boost mobile coverage in rural areas as part of a coordinated effort to build out enough infrastructure to support nearly the entire population for mobile services. The target is to reach 95 per cent of the population by 2026 and eventually to banish - nice political phrase - ‘near - not - spots’ where one or more of the four operators is not fully present for whatever reason. The mast sharing programme will obviously make it more economically viable to get each operator’s signal properly available (nearly) everywhere.
The eagle-eyed will have noted that BT’s EE doesn’t appear to be participating in the mast sharing. In fact it’s just not participating in this phase of the £1 billion project since it has already built out, at great cost to itself, 4G masts in many of the rural areas concerned and hasn’t been able to come to an agreement over how they should be shared (“So you want to share all our masts? What’s it worth?”). EE says it will be fully participating in the SRN when it comes to getting rid of complete ‘notspots’ during the next phase.
The SRN was more or less launched in March last year, but we all know what happened then. So the just announced 222 mast sharing project between three of the four operators is being seen as a first phase - more complicated arrangements are to follow to fill the final gaps.
Until recently it was widely accepted that network competition was key to getting the operators to build out with urgency. Clearly collaboration and competition are two very different things, but the consensus now appears to be that a blend of the two approaches represents a sort of ‘third way’ depending on the circumstances.
We can probably expect competition to continue to be harnessed when it comes to marketing or new services, but cooperation and sharing will be increasingly adopted when it’s in the interests of all the networks to do so. From the increased popularity of ‘neutral host’ networks to the running of telecom workloads in public cloud facilities - these all involve a species of sharing as a way of reducing costs and increasing collaboration.
The SRN was designed and phased to enable Northern Ireland’s 4G coverage to rise to at least 85% of landmass from 75% now; in Scotland it will rise to at least 74% from 42%; in England it will rise from 81% to 90%; Wales will hit at least 80% from 58%.
It’s interesting to see the language changing around the primacy of competition. It’s still important, but sharing to reduce costs and “benefit the economy” is gaining ground right across Europe For instance another big network sharing deal was signed recently between DT and Telefonica/O2 for active site sharing in Germany (see DT and Telefonica/O2 plan active site sharing in Germany).
According to Telefonica UK CEO, Mark Evans, now that 4G coverage has reached over 99% of the UK’s 30.4m premises, a smarter approach is needed to drive investment yet further. “We have reached the point where the remaining parts of rural UK in need of better coverage generally offer little or no prospect of generating sufficient business to pay for the necessary investment,” he says.,
The SRN, he maintains, is not based on Whitehall issuing prescriptive instructions. “That way no longer works. Instead, it is based on the Government and mobile operators working collaboratively in pursuit of a shared goal: to improve rural coverage.
“Under the SRN, the Government will deliver planning policy reform and modest financial support in the hardest to reach areas; while operators will deliver additional investment and commit to sharing infrastructure on an unprecedented scale. As a result, 4G coverage will increase to 95% of UK landmass and improve substantially in all four home nations.” That’s the plan.
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