EE, BT forge ahead with rural coverage buildout

UK carriers EE and BT are currently on track to implement significant upgrades to their rural coverage throughout the UK. 

Both EE and BT are continuing to grow and improve their rural coverage across the UK at speed. While EE has upgraded 4G LTE coverage across more than 220 rural locations since February, BT is exploring the potential for its new partnership with low earth orbit (LEO) satellite firm OneWeb to fill in the gaps between not-spots. 

EE and the SRN 

The UK’s shared rural network (SRN) project was launched earlier this year, with the UK Government pouring £500mn into the otherwise private sector-led project (the UK’s four carriers have committed a £532mn investment between them). The goal at the time was to achieve at least 90% coverage across the UK’s geography - although that figure has since been walked back by the Conservative government to land somewhere around 85%. By allowing one another to piggyback on their competing networks, UK carriers would supposedly be able to give a dramatic boost to the speed and reliability of their networks in rural parts of the UK. 

Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said at the time that the SRN is “an important milestone to level up the country, improve people’s lives and increase prosperity across the length and breadth of our United Kingdom.” 

So far, EE has made the most progress out of the UK’s four (soon to be three, given the news of the O2-Vodafone merger earlier this month) major carriers. In February, the telco committed to upgrading 4G coverage in 579 areas throughout the UK in order to deliver the necessary speed and coverage to comply with the government’s SRN goals. At the time of the announcement, EE had already upgraded 110 areas, and has since completed work on 224 more, leaving the company with 245 location upgrades to complete before the end of the year. 

Marc Allera, CEO of BT's Consumer Division, commended the work EE has done over the past six months in a blog post on Monday, writing that “EE continues to expand a leading rural footprint and is taking part in a Shared Rural Network to help extend coverage,” but added that “Even with industry will and investment, not-spots will remain. For mobile coverage, those gaps can be particularly tricky, because they often fall between communities, in places of low – or at times no – population; areas where customers can be briefly passing through. It’s a fact that some of our sites carry fewer than 10 calls a day.” 

Closing the final few mobile coverage gaps in the UK has the potential to be a logistical nightmare for operators, as less-populated, more remote locations that are both harder to access, and handle far less traffic that the areas that already have coverage, make the final stretch of the race to 95% coverage a marathon rather than a sprint. 

Coverage above the clouds 

One method that could be the key to carriers in the UK extending their networks to hard-to-reach not-spots is the increasing viability of LEO satellite arrays. 

UK startup OneWeb - fresh from declaring bankruptcy, before the UK Government and Indian telecom firm Bharti Global poured $1bn of fresh equity into the company in November - has recently linked up with BT to do just that. The two companies struck a deal over the weekend to explore using OneWeb’s growing constellation of microsatellites to help fill in the blank spaces on the UK’s coverage map.

OneWeb’s Chief Executive Officer, Neil Masterson, has called his firm’s network “a vital means for bridging the last digital divides across the network,” also noting that the partnership represents “a huge sign of progress in the resilience and advancement of the overall telecom infrastructure in the UK.” 

BT’s Chief Executive, Philip Jansen, reflected that the company’s “ambitious full fibre and mobile commitments” had begun to bump up against the challenges of closing these difficult, low-population not-spots, adding that “it is clear that greater partnership is needed, both with Government and within industry, to ensure connectivity can reach every last corner of the country. Our agreement with OneWeb is an important step to understanding how that goal could be achieved in the future.” 

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