Government’s rural 4G programme behind schedule, report warns

22 February 2024, 00:04

A mobile phone next to a telecoms mast
Huawei concerns. Picture: PA

The National Audit Office has warned the scheme could ultimately fail to reach its targets.

The Government’s plans to extend 4G mobile connectivity in rural areas are behind schedule, according to a report from the National Audit Office (NAO).

It said the Shared Rural Network programme funded by the Government and the country’s biggest mobile operators to bring 95% 4G mobile coverage across the UK landmass by 2025 had so far only seen one network meet its interim coverage target, and questions remained over whether the 95% target would be met on time.

The network sees operators sharing infrastructure in order to boost mobile signal in the countryside.

While the report acknowledged that the rollout has been hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic, opposition from local campaign groups and local authorities’ capacity to handle planning applications, it also said the Government and mobile operators had taken longer than expected to finalise mast locations and to agree other aspects about the sites.

The report warned that estimated costs had also risen, and indicated that these additional pressures mean operators may not be able to deliver the level of coverage required within the current funding.

The Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) business case suggests the scheme will deliver economic benefits of more than £1.35 billion by supporting business and tourism in rural areas.

However, the NAO report said the Government had so far provided limited evidence of the specific business case benefits of extending mobile coverage into sparsely populated areas.

The NAO recommended improving oversight of the mobile operators on the Shared Rural Network scheme to ensure there was sufficient focus on delivering 4G coverage and performance for consumers and businesses.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Demand for mobile data access is expected to increase as data-intensive services become more popular and new technologies enable new uses, and government has set out a clear ambition for improved connectivity.

“It is unclear whether the Shared Rural Network programme will achieve its coverage target on time; costs are higher than anticipated; and government has not clearly articulated the benefits of aspects of the programme, including increased connectivity in sparsely populated areas.”

Responding to the report, a DSIT spokesperson said: “This is premature.

“The programme remains on track to deliver 95% UK 4G coverage by the end of 2025, with coverage already available across 93% of UK landmass.

“We will continue to work with mobile network operators to ensure the programme is delivered on time and that the crucial coverage improvements are delivered across rural parts of the country.”

By Press Association

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