How BT is solving mobile connectivity challenge for rural Britain


By Marc Allera, CEO of BT Group’s Consumer division

Joint investment in rural coverage is imperative, but prior investments must be respected – and future investment protected

We’re delighted to be part of the Government’s Shared Rural Network program, and it’s great to see the progress being made to plug the coverage gaps across the UK.

The first part of SRN is focused on filling in the so-called ‘partial not spots’ – places where customers of some but not all operators have 4G coverage. Delivering great 4G coverage wherever our customers live, work and travel has been our key driver when investing in building our UK-leading mobile network since we launched 4G in 2012.

But UK consumers should not have to experience ‘no service’ when they’re in an area where mobile sites have been built. This is the basis of the SRN, and participation of all providers is both progressive and vital. Sharing sites should be straightforward, deliver a huge benefit to rural locations and, crucially, minimise the need to add more towers and masts.

Over the past seven-and-a-bit years, EE has invested in getting 4G coverage to significantly more places than any other network, driven by our belief that our customers should be able to connect wherever they go. This has meant we’ve built more sites than any other operator. And, as Ofcom’s recent Connected Nations report demonstrates, there’s many places where we’re the only provider of 4G coverage. We expect many of these sites to form the basis of the share program, helping the other providers to fill holes in their networks to keep people connected.

This week, we’ve submitted an important document into the final part of the process – the cost proposal for sharing sites. This document clearly outlines the reciprocal costs we feel should be paid to get access to one another’s sites.

It’s based upon the inherent value of these mobile sites today, and the investment made to get that site up, built and working – as well as the time and effort to get planning permission and reach agreement with the landowners – to create the mobile coverage these areas so desperately need. All of which is harder to do, and more expensive, because of the challenges of building in rural areas.

We think it’s fair and reasonable that this investment and the current value of the site are both taken into account, and need to be recognised when others come to ‘share’ it. Of course, this goes both ways and should ensure that the fair approach to rural coverage that the SRN was designed to introduce is maintained.

Finding an analogy here is tricky because this is complex, but I sometimes think of it like Sainsbury’s building a new superstore in a rural area and being made to give away shelf space to Tesco, Lidl and Asda.

The new Government aims to complete the Shared Rural Network deal within its first 100 days. This is pacy, but we now feel all enablers are there. The £1bn programme, to be funded broadly 50:50 by industry and government, will be of huge importance to people across rural parts of the UK – not only in filling partial not spots, as we’ve discussed here, but also working together to build brand new sites that cover total not spots.

We now want to finalise the programme as quickly as possible and get on with the important part: improving connectivity for people across the UK, and helping close the digital divide.