BT has denied that it is making it too expensive for rival operators to access its rural sites as part of the UK’s Shared Rural Network scheme*.
Three mobile operators in the UK said today that they would be building out 222 cell sites in remote rural areas to eliminate partial notspots. A partial notspot is an area where you cannot access coverage from all four UK national operators. The three – Vodafone, O2 and Three UK, will build 74 sites each and share them with each other, siting their own equipment on the same infrastructure. The rollout plan is part of the first stage of meeting commitments under an agreed plan with the UK government to boost rural mobile network coverage. The exact number of sites and where they will be located is still up for grabs, as planning and site approvals will still have their role to play.
With BT/EE not involved in the day’s announcement, the obvious question is, “Why not?” Well, EE says that’s because it already has a large number of rural sites deployed as part of its ESN rollout.
EE can meet the requirements of its initial SRN targets through upgrades to existing sites, rather than needing to build brand new ones, although it will need to build more in the future. The operator brought 92 new sites online in Scotland last year, and 25 in Wales. As a comparison, the three operators today commit to 124 in Scotland and 33 in Wales over the next four years. Many of the new sites will cover areas where EE already has coverage.
EE has said that it can expand coverage from its existing sites – for instance by adding new 800MHz band support – and that it will indeed need to do that to meet coverage obligations under the SRN agreement.
This, then, begs another question. “If EE has so many rural sites already deployed, why are the other operators building their own, new, sites rather than paying for access to EE’s sites?”
EE itself recognises this, saying, “We’ve built more than 600 new rural sites over the past few years and we’ve offered to make these available to other operators to support them to improve their own rural coverage.”
This raises the prospect of some remote rural areas having operators providing coverage from two sites, where one could have done the job, which seems to at least partially undermine the purpose of a shared network bringing down overall costs.
One contact at one of the operators concerned told TMN that EE’s rate card for site sharing access is high enough to make it cheaper for the three operators to build their own sites.
An official statement from Vodafone shared by CCS Insight analyst Kester Mann could also be read in that vein. It says, “All operators are participants and signatories to the SRN, but this first stage is being led by O2, Vodafone and Three. This was the quickest and most cost-effective way to get the much-needed connectivity out to these communities.”
A BT spokesperson, asked why the other three operators were not sharing EE’s existing masts, said, “That’s a fair question.”
He added he wasn’t sure of the fee structure, but said that he would be “very surprised if it is still cheaper for them to build their own sites.” He proposed that there may be other factors, such as EE’s sites not meeting the other operators’ needs in terms of backhaul capability. And he added that EE’s ESN’s sites are very optimised to provide coverage along roads, and that too may have been off-putting for the other operators.
The EE spokesperson also confirmed that EE is still looking to share sites with other site owners as the SRN rollout programme continues.
- The Shared Rural Network is a £1bn programme to improve rural mobile coverage and was agreed by the mobile network operators, Government and Ofcom in March 2020. Funded by the mobile industry and Government, investment will be made in new and existing phone masts to increase all operators’ 4G coverage to at least 90% of UK landmass and their aggregate coverage to 95% by 2026. The programme is not just targeted at eliminating partial notspots. The UK Government is targeting its funding to eliminate the vast majority of total notspots, leaving the country with 95% coverage by 2026.