Shared Rural Network boost for UK enterprises

08 March 2021

The first phase of the new Shared Rural Network (SRN) provided by O2, Three and Vodafone, could increase the turnover for rural businesses by £187.7m per annum in addition to providing more reliable connectivity, according to a new study commissioned by O2.

All three mobile operators are working to build and share 222 new 4G (mobile broadband) masts in order to help resolve partial not-spots, including 124 new sites in Scotland, 33 in Wales, 11 in Northern Ireland and 54 in England. Not-spots are usually areas where only one provider is available. The construction phase for these will begin this year, but it will take until 2024 before completion.

O2 said this first phase alone will raise the proportion of the UK with access to 4G networks from 67% to 84%. In assessing the impact of this O2 commissioned Development Economics to model the benefits for rural businesses and individuals.

The new report found that, once the first phase of the rollout has been completed, rural businesses located near new mobile mast sites could benefit from an annual increase in turnover of £187.7m. Access to the SRN for individuals and businesses will also allow these rural communities to contribute an extra £58.9m to the UK economy (GDP) each year.

Moreover, the report noted that the largest share – some 28% – of the gains in business turnover and productivity are expected to occur in rural Scotland, valued at £79m in additional business turnover and a £24.1m added contribution to the UK economy. This is followed by Northern Ireland, which will see 16% of the predicted net gains, south west England with around 15%, Wales with 14% and the north west of England with 8%.

It was also revealed that 42% of the projected increase in turnover will benefit those in the struggling hospitality sector, covering rural distribution, hotels and catering businesses, which are in line for a £78.8m boost to revenues. The other sectors that account for the largest shares of the increase in turnover are expected to be transport and communications (17% of the predicted revenue increase) and professional, financial, property and business services (10% of the increase).

David Samuel, managing director at communication technology vendor 24 Seven Cloud told Networking+ that networks “all finally sharing infrastructure is positive news”, but what is unclear is how it will work in practice and what the results will look like. “O2 and Vodafone have been sharing masts for a few years now and blackspots (or not-spots) still exist,” he added. “Any improvement however for the consumer is only a good thing and will go further to support connectivity for remote/WFH users and unified communications platforms.”

The last year proved that reliable mobile connectivity has been essential for keeping us all connected to our loved ones and keeping businesses across the UK up and running – and 2021 is set to be no different,” said Derek McManus, COO at O2. “Our latest research shows that mobile has the power to make a real, positive difference to people in rural communities and demonstrates the difference we can make when operators, the government and Ofcom work together to achieve a shared objective.”

McManus added that it remains “extremely difficult” to accurately assess the economic benefits of improved mobile connectivity, particularly in areas like partial not-spots, where an existing service may already exist from a single operator. “Otherwise, the SRN aims to provide guaranteed coverage to 280,000 premises and 16,000km of roads and boost ‘in car’ coverage on around 45,000 km of road and better indoor coverage in around 1.2m business premises and homes,” he said.