How the Shared Rural Network is helping to bridge the digital divide in the UK

Access to digital connectivity is now considered by some a basic right rather than a privilege.   Connectivity enables individuals and businesses to benefit from the many social and economic opportunities available in today’s increasingly digital world.  It is therefore imperative to make sure that everyone can access connectivity no matter where they live or work, including those in the more remote areas of the country.

According to latest government research on rural mobile coverage, 4G geographic coverage from all mobile network operators for the country’s rural areas is currently 66%, though coverage by individual networks varies and can be significantly higher than this.  But rural coverage is set to improve further, thanks to the Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme which was launched in 2020.  Jointly funded by the UK’s four mobile network operators and the government to improve rural coverage throughout the country, the landmark programme is investing £1 billion in new and existing mobile phone masts.  The commitment is to extend overall 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass around the end of 2025, improving mobile coverage in the areas that need it most.  Reducing ‘total not spots’ – the hard-to-reach areas where there is currently no coverage from any mobile operator, will mean that rural consumers will have coverage in certain areas for the first time.  This will enable rural communities’ access to essential digital services such as mobile banking, government and emergency services as well as shopping and other online benefits.

Since its launch, the SRN programme has been making good progress with the operators delivering on the programme’s commitments through their own investment.  New sites have been installed across all the operators, contributing to incremental progress in improving coverage up and down the country.

Both EE and Three play a key role in the SRN programme and are continuing to deliver new sites and upgrades to extend rural coverage.  EE is expanding 4G in over 2000 areas to bring improved connectivity to each UK nation.  It has already delivered improved coverage, via the SRN programme, in over 850 areas since the SRN deal was signed and a further 1500 are set to benefit from extended EE 4G coverage.   EE has also worked with the Scottish Government on their 4G Infill programme, delivering 4G services to parts of Scotland that have never received mobile coverage before. Three is partnering with O2 and Vodafone to build and share 222 new mobile masts to boost rural coverage across the UK.  124 new sites will be built in Scotland, 33 in Wales, 11 in Northern Ireland, and 54 in England.  The new masts are scheduled to be completed in line with the SRN agreement.

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