Why delivering on the Shared Rural Network matters


By Howard Watson, Chief Security and Networks Officer, BT Group

You’ve secured tickets to a major game at Wembley but you’re running late as you dash for the Underground. While BT Group can’t control the tubes, we’re getting closer to controlling the mobile signal across the tube network. A world of seamless connectivity is fast approaching where, even if you’re late for the game, you’ll be able to stream the start without interruption: from the street, as you descend underground, throughout the Jubilee line tunnels and all the while down Wembley Way…

There’s huge competition to present as the best network in urban areas. Whether it’s Vodafone’s sponsorship of the All England Lawn Tennis Club, O2 at the former Millennium Dome or Three’s ongoing communication partnership with Chelsea, visibility of brand is everywhere in cities like London. We do the same with EE’s sponsorship of the home football nations and Wembley. But visibility of the actual network to customers is even more important. That’s true in urban areas, but it's even more vital in rural ones, where competition can be lower.

While in built up areas, the network is denser - using rooftops, bus stops, phone boxes and small cells to pack in the capacity that bigger populations demand - the challenges of connectivity in the countryside are very different. Mobile masts are fewer but come with their own unique – and costly – challenges. Planning processes take longer, there are greater demands to ensure the site blends into its surroundings and power connections are harder to come by and more expensive to deliver. We also have to consider what resilience we can put in place – such as back-up power or backhaul technology – as servicing remoter sites can prove challenging in extreme weather, like that being experienced by the UK today.

This makes partnerships with Government vital. They provide political support for investment and can sometimes contribute capital funding too.

In 2020 the mobile industry committed to the UK Government to close partial not-spots under a project called the Shared Rural Network. Last week, EE announced it had fulfilled that commitment, taking 4G coverage to over 88% of the UK landmass. Likewise, in Scotland, we’re proud to have installed 4G on 50 of the 55 sites funded by the Scottish Government under their S4GI (Scotland 4G Infill) programme. And in Wales, we’ve worked with the government to deliver bespoke new sites, like our 5G mast at the Royal Welsh Show in Builth Wells.

We’ve delivered these promises in the face of tough economic conditions, a global pandemic and a wide range of digital transformation within our own networks. Which is why it’s surprising to see those very same problems being used as an excuse by other networks for their slow progress.

Take Scotland. Despite Government funding to build 55 brand new sites, two networks have managed just under a third of sites between them, while the fourth has managed to add 4G to just a single site over the past three years. On the UK Government’s flagship mobile policy – the Shared Rural Network – Ministers have reportedly received an unwelcome request from CTOs of those same companies asking for extra support in order not to miss their targets. One has already gone as far as to tell the Business and Trade Select Committee that they would miss the target.

Of course, disruption can happen. Covid did impact on workforce personnel and supply chains, but they impacted networks equally. EE entered the SRN agreement clear-eyed, understanding the deployment environment and the difficulties we would undoubtedly face.  We therefore designed our programme to mitigate risks and delays to our roll-out.  During the programme, we also made difficult decisions to divert spend and resource from other network programmes to overcome issues in a timely manner, given the importance of meeting the deadline to our customers and due to the clear financial penalties for non-delivery.

In other words, delivering legally binding commitments like these to Government takes a concerted effort and strategic sacrifices; there is always a choice for how, what and where a business chooses to invest. And given the involvement of taxpayer money to fund coverage, it’s hard to blame the wider investment environment for missing this licence commitment.

Why does this matter? This week, the Shared Rural Network will be debated in Parliament. And next month, the National Audit Office is expected to conclude a review it has undertaken into the programme. Scrutiny of Government policy matters and installing mobile infrastructure in more rural and remote parts of the UK is always challenging. But EE’s efforts shows where there’s a willingness to prioritise investment to meet the coverage promises you’ve made, it should be delivered.