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17 May 2019

UK operators demand 5G concessions in return for rural mast sharing

Filling in the UK’s rural mobile broadband ‘notspots’ has been the subject of much controversy over the past couple of years. The four MNOs angrily rejected proposals by regulator Ofcom to impose compulsory roaming in underserved areas, but though they have adopted various approaches, such as small cells, to address the issue, coverage remains imperfect.

Now, the operators – BT/EE, O2, Vodafone and 3UK – are reported to have agreed to form a mast sharing company in order to lower the cost of extending coverage in rural areas – but in return, they are said to have demanded a £200m discount on their annual spectrum licence fees to cover the cost of the new venture.

They are also demanding that no coverage obligations or national roaming mandates should be attached to 5G licences when 700 MHz spectrum is auctioned later this year. This sub-GHz spectrum is the most likely to come with such obligations, since its propagation qualities make it cost-effective for deploying over large and under-populated areas.

The Financial Times reported last week that the four MNOs have also proposed providing reciprocal access to one another’s existing towers in remote areas to boost the availability of competitive services to users in those locations, many of whom only have one choice of provider.

According to the FT, the offers were made at a meeting between the MNOs and Jeremy Wright of the Department of Culture Media and Sport, which has responsibility for digital media, telecoms and Ofcom. An unnamed attendee claimed it was the first time all four operators had managed to agree on a joint proposal.