Three set to miss rural broadband deadline

Three is likely to miss its rural broadband coverage targets as the deadline to address mobile signal “not spots” looms.

Mobile network operators have until July to extend their coverage to encompass 88% of the UK’s landmass, the initial goal of a £1bn government initiative.

While Vodafone has confirmed it will meet the deadline and Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) is also on track, smaller rival Three has stated it is “working hard” to achieve the targets but has not confirmed its compliance.

BT, which owns the EE network, recently struck a rural coverage agreement with some of its competitors to help meet the deadline. Sources reveal that BT has arranged for VMO2 and Vodafone to access some of its mobile masts in remote areas.

EE, boasting more mobile masts than its rivals and contributing separately to the rural coverage project, met its initial target earlier this year.

These last-minute agreements highlight the urgency to upgrade rural mobile signals after the government denied requests for an 18-month extension. If Three fails to complete the first phase of the project, it risks incurring fines. The project focuses on “partial not spot” areas where coverage is provided by at least one operator but not all.

Ofcom, the regulator, has the authority to fine companies up to 10% of their global turnover but has indicated that any response would be “reasonable.” Three is expected to meet with Ofcom in the coming weeks.

Delays in the Shared Rural Network (SRN) project would negatively impact local communities awaiting upgrades to their vital telecoms infrastructure. A recent analysis by consultancy FarrPoint, commissioned by EE, revealed that 4G connectivity has generated economic benefits of up to £6.9 million over 15 years for rural communities.

The second phase of the SRN project, funded by the government, will target “total not spot” areas, where no operators currently provide 4G services. Ministers aim to cover 95% of the UK’s landmass by the end of next year and the entire country by early 2027.

A spokesperson for Three said: “We are working hard to meet the interim deadline and are on track to deliver the overall January 2027 target for 4G geographic coverage under the SRN programme.”

A BT spokesperson commented: “We’ve been in discussions with several other mobile networks in recent months to share sites to support their coverage efforts, and we’ll continue to collaborate with them on the next phase of the project.”

An Ofcom spokesperson added: “We’re responsible for assessing mobile network operators’ compliance with their coverage obligations, and we expect to receive data about their progress soon. Over the summer, we will conduct our own analysis, including drive tests to certain locations to verify coverage. An update on our findings and next steps will be published in due course.”