Home » 4G “Unlikely” to be Extended to 95% of U.K. by End of 2025

4G “Unlikely” to be Extended to 95% of U.K. by End of 2025

The U.K. government’s target of extending 4G coverage to 95% of the country by December 2025 is looking unlikely, according to a report from the House of Commons. Businesses and individuals in rural areas will be most impacted by the failure, especially after 3G and landline networks are turned off.

For the target to be met, the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology must continue the 4G rollout at the same pace that it has been for the past year. The Commons report said the four operators had been “averaging an increase in coverage of about 0.1 percentage points a month over the past five or six months.”

While this sounds feasible — coverage is currently at 93.2% after four years of effort — the remaining areas are “harder to reach and connect” because they are “extremely rural and remote.” The budget for the so-called Shared Rural Network programme may not account for the additional effort required to build this infrastructure.

According to the Commons report, the specific areas of the U.K. in the 5% that could still be without 4G in 18 months time have not been confirmed by DSIT. The department also does not have a plan in place to ensure this does not happen.

‘Digital divide’ between urban and rural areas impacts UK businesses

Kerry Booth, chief executive of the Rural Services Network, told TechRepublic in an email: “The potential failure to meet this target will have a profound impact on rural businesses and communities.

“Rural areas are already facing significant disadvantages due to inadequate digital infrastructure, impacting everything from business operations, access to education, access to health and care services as well as personal communications.

“As rural areas are progressively cut off from 3G services, without a corresponding increase in 4G coverage, we risk seeing an exacerbation of these challenges. It is critical that the government reassesses its strategies and investment commitments to ensure that the digital divide does not widen further.”

Businesses and individuals in remote areas of the U.K. have traditionally been underserved by network providers, often because their existing levels of connectivity are misrepresented. The Commons report said “Ofcom’s data for measuring connectivity often does not reflect people’s experience” because it does not take into account how local geography or building materials used in the area can impact coverage. Ofcom is the U.K.’s communications regulator.

Rural professionals have spoken out about how the resulting lack of connectivity is impacting their businesses. Land agent Dr. Julia Aglionby told Farmers Guardian in April that there was limited 4G in her area of Cumbria, making it difficult for farmers to develop their businesses, as they cannot contact banks or use apps to record livestock and environmental data, for example.

Agronomist Jim Clark told the publication he found it tricky to make phone calls in his area in Cumbria, and that “it is worse than ever now, many areas just have no signal.”

The Commons report recommended that DSIT finalise the number of masts and their locations after a revised cost-benefits analysis, and then confirm the locations that will still not have 4G coverage once the Shared Rural Network program is complete. The department should then develop a definitive plan for delivering connectivity to the remaining underserved areas, so the digital divide doesn’t worsen.

Sarah Lee, the Director of Policy and Campaigns at the Countryside Alliance, told TechRepublic in an email: “It is a tale as old as time that deadlines for delivering connectivity to rural areas are missed so the Countryside Alliance is not surprised that the target to deliver 4G will be another one.

“Delivering a strong economy, increased productivity and thriving communities cannot be achieved without recognising the vital role the countryside has to play in boosting our productivity.”

What is the Shared Rural Network programme?

The Shared Rural Network programme was initiated in 2020 to improve mobile connectivity across the U.K., particularly for “Not Spots,” that only receive coverage from some operators or none at all. Around £500 million of government funding and £532 million of operator investment was earmarked for the Shared Rural Network, with the majority being invested in rural Scotland.

Mobile network providers EE, Three, Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone all committed to increasing their 4G coverage to 88% of the U.K. landmass by June 30 this year as part of the programme; however, EE is the only one to have reached this target so far.

In February 2024, the National Audit Office revealed that Three, Vodafone and Virgin Media O2 confirmed they were “each likely to miss their Ofcom licence obligation to provide 88% 4G coverage by June 2024” and “wanted to discuss an 18-month extension.” This request was formally rejected by the government’s Building Digital UK agency.

Despite this, last month, Vodafone boasted of its progress towards the Shared Rural Network, as it had expanded 4G services to 250 additional rural sites across the U.K. In May, Virgin Media O2 said it had installed 150. Ofcom is due to assess the progress of the Shared Rural Network programme this summer, and will publish the results in Q3.

SEE: Delaying AI’s Rollout in the U.K. by Five Years Could Cost the Economy £150+ Billion, Microsoft Report Finds

Why will the Shared Rural Network programme not meet the 95% target?

The Shared Rural Network will not meet its 95% target largely due to cost pressures. While the 4G infrastructure needs to continue to be built at the same rate it is now, the remaining areas pose “delivery challenges” that mean installing new masts will both take longer and be more expensive.

The report’s authors claim DSIT does not know how much the programme’s cost will rise as a result of these challenges, how much of this additional cost will be borne by the taxpayer and if it will inhibit the network operators’ ability to reach their individual coverage targets.

The cost of the Extended Area Service element of the programme, which should see 292 4G-enabled masts installed in remote parts of the U.K., is said to have risen by about £44 million due to irrecoverable VAT and inflation. DSIT is considering reducing the number of masts to 170 to account for this.

Furthermore, delivery of the Total Not Spot portion, which should bring 4G coverage to the hardest-to-reach areas of Scotland, will “exceed the current level of associated government funding.” The number of masts planned for this project may also be reduced, or Ministers could allocate more funding.

DSIT has said the mobile network operators will pick up any additional costs incurred in the Shared Rural Network, and Ofcom could fine them up to 10% of their global turnover if the programme is delayed. Ofcom has the right to relieve them of their original obligations if costs become “excessive,” but the report’s authors state that doing so could put the 95% target at risk.

The National Audit Office warned in the February report that the Shared Rural Network would not reach its targets. It cited the COVID-19 pandemic, opposition from local campaign groups and local authorities’ insufficient capacity to handle planning applications as reasons for the delay. The length it was taking DSIT and mobile operators to finalise mast locations and make other site-related decisions also played a part.

However, a DSIT spokesperson called these claims “premature” and said the “programme remains on track” as of February.

Why is the U.K. phasing out 3G?

All major operators have confirmed to the government that they will phase out 3G by 2033. Vodafone and BT (EE) already have phased out 3G, while Three and O2 plan to by the end of this year and 2025, respectively. This puts more pressure on the nationwide 4G rollout, as businesses still reliant on these signals could be left without connectivity.

Shutting down 3G intends to free up radio spectrum bands so they can be repurposed for faster, more reliable 4G and 5G networks. These services are also more energy efficient, which will help reduce operating costs and power consumption.

Consumers still using 3G devices will need to upgrade; businesses should check whether any of their wireless devices, like alarms or payment terminals, will need to be replaced or updated.

Making more space for 4G by phasing out 3G naturally supports the Shared Rural Network programme, which, according to the National Audit Office report, will allegedly contribute £1.35 billion to the economy through supporting business and tourism in rural areas.

However, the Commons report says that DSIT has “limited evidence of the specific benefits of extending mobile coverage into remote and sparsely populated areas, where building masts may be more difficult or expensive, or where there may be an impact on the environment.” The National Audit Office report contains similar wording on the topic.

The U.K.’s recent efforts to extend connectivity to rural areas

Aside from the Shared Rural Network, U.K. authorities have taken steps in recent years to boost network coverage in the countryside.

In February 2023, BT tested mobile coverage enabled by a high-altitude platform station aircraft as a proposed solution to difficulties with 4G and 5G connectivity in remote areas of the U.K. 5G testing on a Britten-Norman Islander aircraft is due to start in July. The Commons’ report states that the government “needs to consider these (high altitude technologies) in conjunction with its other policies to ensure investment produces the most favourable results.”

In April 2023, the government announced a £40 million investment in extending 5G coverage to all populated areas of the country by 2030, and later announced the 5G Innovation Regions that will receive boosted wireless connectivity as a result. The following November, Vodafone pledged to provide 95% of the population with 5G by 2030 to “close the digital divide.” Research published in November 2023 found that 46% of rural deprived areas do not have any 5G coverage, whereas that figure is 2.7% for urban deprived areas.

In June 2023, the government unveiled a £7 million fund for testing how to use satellite, wireless and fixed line internet connectivity to bring faster connectivity to remote areas. Four months later, it said it would discuss new proposals to improve broadband provision for isolated places that won’t receive broadband under any of the new schemes.

BT launched its Narrowband-IoT, or NB-IoT, network in the U.K. in February this year. NB-IoT is a low-power, long-range fixed wireless network that can connect low data demand IoT assets like street lights and underground water sensors. BT is the second telecoms operator to roll out a nationwide NB-IoT network after Vodafone in 2017. Virgin Media O2 plans to finish its own rollout by the end of the year.

Rural U.K. businesses that make use of low-power technologies for applications like environmental monitoring, livestock tracking, gas and water metering and smart alarm systems, will particularly reap the benefits of the expansion of NB-IoT networks.

Despite these efforts, data from telecoms regulator Ofcom shows that, as of late 2023, there were still around 2.4 million devices reliant on 2G or 3G networks, although 3G only makes up 3% of network data traffic. Indeed, almost two-thirds of local councils across England and Wales still depend on these services.

This is not through lack of trying, as individuals based in remote parts of the U.K. are actively looking for new technologies to improve their connectivity. The majority of homes taking up satellite broadband are in rural areas, and take up of full fibre broadband is double that than in urban areas, according to Ofcom.