UK government looks to end of 4G mobile blackspots in rural Wales

Just weeks after UK financial watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) slammed it for a perceived lack of progress in its flagship Shared Rural Network (SRN) scheme to expand 4G mobile connectivity in rural UK areas, the UK government has said it’s now delivering on plans to tackle poor and patchy connection in traditionally hard-to-reach areas of rural Wales, with the switching on of the first of 86 4G masts in the country in March 2024.

The principle of the £1.3bn SRN programme, launched in 2020, is that through both public and private investment, new and existing phone masts will be built or upgraded across the UK to close down rural mobile notspots.

The UK’s four mobile network operators (MNOs) – EE, Virgin Media O2 (VMO2), Three and Vodafone – have committed to improving 4G coverage and levelling up connectivity across the UK, which has seen them invest in a shared network of new and existing phone masts, overseen by a jointly owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited (DMSL). The operators’ £532m investment is complemented by more than £501m in government funding.

Since April 2021, Building Digital UK (BDUK), an executive agency of the UK’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), has been responsible for the overall delivery of the SRN programme on behalf of DSIT. Responsibility for digital connectivity transferred from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to DSIT in the machinery of government changes in February 2023.

Over the course of 2024, the UK’s mobile phone operators have demonstrated good progress in rolling out new and upgraded 4G coverage in traditionally hard-to-reach areas as part of the SRN scheme, yet according to the NAO’s Supporting mobile connectivity report, their progress has not been matched by the UK government, whose plans to extend 4G mobile connectivity and broaden consumer choice in rural areas are behind schedule. Moreover, it’s not yet clear whether the programme will meet its target to provide high-quality 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025.

The NAO report attributed a number of reasons for the delay. It said government and the operators took longer than expected to finalise mast locations, agree site sharing and access, and procure services. It added that progress on the programme had also been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, opposition from local campaign groups and local authorities’ capacity to handle planning applications. More worryingly, the report disclosed that estimated costs have risen significantly on the programme, due to high inflation and other factors, although the government does not yet know by how much in total.

Aiming to get back on track, the UK government says several rural communities in Wales will now be able to access fast and reliable 4G mobile coverage, benefitting residents, tourists and business owners, and boosting economic growth. Initial areas include Pont-rhyd-y-groes, Ysbyty Ystwyth, LLanafan, Tynygraig, and West Fedw and Trawsgoed.

Also as a result of the upgrade, residents and tourists of Powys County will be able to access 4G signal from all four mobile network operators, EE, VMO2, Three and Vodafone. A further two 4G masts are set to be switched on in the coming months in the villages of Esgair Maen and Bronfelin, as the delivery of the Shared Rural Network programme ramps up.

“Bad mobile signal can cause people immense frustration and hold back businesses in rural areas,” said UK digital infrastructure minister Julia Lopez. “This is why I’ve made it my absolute priority to ensure that no one feels like they are being left behind because of the lack of reliable signal.

“I’m thrilled to see our roll-out signalling the end of mobile blackspots in rural Wales in Powys County,” she said. “Everyone – from residents and business owners to tourists – can access future-proof mobile connectivity and enjoy the opportunities it unlocks.”

DMSL CEO Ben Roome added: “In Wales, since the Shared Rural Network was announced in March 2020, 4G coverage from all four operators has expanded across an additional 1,000 square kilometres – an area larger than Monmouthshire. As more shared mobile sites go live, people visiting and living in rural areas will see better 4G service thanks to this programme.”

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