Committee warns UK set to miss 4G coverage target

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The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee’s report on the Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme reveals critical issues in meeting the UK government’s 95% 4G coverage goal by December 2025.

Launched in 2020, the SRN aims to improve 4G coverage from 91.4% to 95% of the UK landmass. Despite a steady increase to 93.1%, sustaining this progress becomes increasingly challenging as the remaining areas are harder to reach.

The report highlights that three out of four mobile network operators have already warned the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology that they are unlikely to meet interim 4G coverage obligations set by Ofcom by June 2024.

The government’s £501 million investment in the SRN programme is experiencing cost pressures, potentially inflating the project’s expenses beyond initial estimates. The report states, “The Department is not yet certain by how much the programme’s costs will rise as a result of these pressures, how much of any cost increase will be borne by the taxpayer and whether cost pressures will affect mobile network operators’ ability to achieve coverage targets.”

Lack of clarity on uncovered areas

One of the pressing concerns is the uncertainty about which specific areas will remain without 4G connectivity. The Department has yet to outline a plan for the 5% of the UK landmass that will not benefit from the SRN programme. This ambiguity leaves stakeholders in the dark about the future connectivity in these regions, particularly affecting remote and sparsely populated areas.

The report criticises the current state of public reporting on mobile connectivity, noting that Ofcom’s data often does not match consumers’ real-world experiences. Factors such as local geography and building materials can significantly impact the quality of coverage. The Committee urges the Department to work with Ofcom to ensure that coverage data reflects actual user experience and to consider crowd-sourced data for more accurate insights.

The government’s investment in 5G, amounting to £400 million, also comes under scrutiny. The Committee expresses doubts about the tangible benefits achieved so far and urges continued oversight to ensure that future investments are justified and effective. The report stresses the need to consider emerging technologies like low orbiting satellites to complement traditional infrastructure and optimise investment outcomes.

Recommendations for moving forward

The Committee provides several recommendations to address these issues, including:

  1. Cost management: The Department and BDUK should collaborate closely with mobile network operators to gain precise information on cost increases and manage them effectively while ensuring coverage targets are met.
  2. Benefit analysis: The Department should revisit its cost-benefit analysis to determine who will benefit from improved connectivity and use this information to make informed decisions on mast locations and investments.
  3. Alternative technologies: For areas that will remain uncovered, the Department should explore alternative technologies like low earth orbit satellites to provide necessary connectivity.
  4. Improving data accuracy: The Department should work with Ofcom to develop ways for consumers and businesses to report coverage gaps in real-time, enhancing the accuracy of coverage data.
  5. Tracking progress: The Department should ensure it has up-to-date information to track progress against targets for increasing 4G connectivity on roads and premises, reporting publicly on these metrics.
  6. Rail connectivity: Improving mobile connectivity on railways is crucial, and the Department should collaborate with the Department for Transport and Ofcom to collect more granular and up-to-date data to inform investment decisions.

As the UK strives to enhance its mobile connectivity, addressing these challenges is vital to achieving the government’s ambitious goals and ensuring that all regions benefit from reliable mobile services.

(Photo by Omar Ram)

See also: BT to slash additional £3B in costs following full-fibre rollout peak

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