EE now provides 4G in 1,600 rural areas under U.K. scheme

BT-owned wireless operator EE said it has completed the first phase of a £1 billion ($1.23 billion) network initiative it is undertaking with three other mobile network operators and the government to bring 4G to rural areas of the U.K.

Under the Shared Rural Network (SRN) initiative, the U.K.’s big four MNOs  – EE, Three, Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone – are on track to serve 4G across 95% of the landmass by the end of 2025.

This week, EE said it has now built or upgraded over 1,600 4G sites across the U.K. since the SRN deal was signed in March 2020. In December 2022, it had upgraded 1,362 sites.

The first phase of the program required all operators to commit to upgrade or build mobile infrastructure and extend the reach of their 4G networks to eliminate “partial not-spots,” defined as areas which receive coverage from at least one operator, but not all.

The Ofcom deadline for all the operators to meet their individual SRN coverage targets for partial not-spot areas is June 2024, putting pressure on the other three MNOs to achieve this goal. EE said it now provides 4G access to 99% of the population and 88% of the U.K.’s entire landmass. However, previous reports have suggested that Three, Vodafone and VM O2 have asked for an extension of the deadline.

The second phase of the SRN, publicly funded by the U.K. government, is due to be completed in 2027 and will develop new shared masts to bring 4G connectivity to areas with no existing mobile service, or “total not-spots.”

The MNOs are providing total investment of £532 million ($674 million) to fund coverage in partial not-spots, while government funding of about £500 million aims to eliminate total not-spots. Overall, the SRN is expected to provide coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads across the U.K.

According to the latest Connected Nations report from U.K. regulator Ofcom, about 98% of premises have outdoor 4G coverage from all MNOs. The operators are also moving ahead with closing down legacy 2G and 3G networks in order to free up spectrum for 4G and 5G networks and reduce overall operational costs. Indeed, all four have committed to switching off their 2G and 3G networks by 2033 at the latest.

London calling

Meanwhile, a report published on Wednesday by fixed and mobile network testing and benchmarking specialist MedUX found that EE leads in 5G reliability and quality of experience in London, the U.K. capital.

According to the report, EE provides the highest 5G registration rate (92% of time) and the most consistent experience (99.6% service reliability), and leads in areas like accessibility, web navigation, gaming and video streaming.

In terms of speeds, Vodafone secured the lead in 5G download speed, with an 87% value for speed score, narrowly outperforming EE by about 2%. Three shone in upstream link (UL), achieving 157 Mbps maximum UL speed. VM O2, meanwhile, was said to have the most reliable DNS resolution service, sharing a 92% DNS score with Three.

At the same time, MedUX said a broader report it has compiled at European level shows London as having one of the worst overall 5G experience when compared to its European counterparts. Berlin reportedly has the best 5G experience among European cities, while Milan has on average the most reliable networks (99.9% service reliability), and Porto the widest 5G availability (91% registration rate).

Rafael González, CMO at Madrid-based MedUX, claimed that the analysis “is crucial for U.K. network operators to understand how they compare against their European peers. While U.K. networks are performing adequately, it’s evident that there’s a gap compared to other parts of Europe. However, there are concrete steps that operators can take to enhance 5G deployment across the country.”

Looking to standalone

Although MedUX did not go into detail, with the European report due in February, the deployment of standalone (SA) 5G would be an obvious way to improve overall network performance.

In early 2023, the U.K. government’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology set out a new Wireless Infrastructure Strategy including a goal related to 5G SA.

The strategy includes the goal to deliver SA 5G to all populated areas in the U.K. by 2030, to extend 4G coverage to 95% of the U.K. population, and to invest £40 million ($49.65 million) to drive innovative 5G-enabled services for businesses and the public sector.

Vodafone UK became the first MNO to launch a 5G SA network for private customers in summer 2023, while BT/EE has hinted that a launch is imminent. VM O2 has focused thus far on a portable commercial 5G SA private network with plug-and-play capability. Vodafone and Three are hoping to merge their operations soon and recently highlighted how the combination of their operations would accelerate 5G SA deployment.