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UK pledges £1B for shared rural 4G network

The U.K. is promising to co-fund a £1 billion shared 4G network for rural areas with the help of the country's leading telcos.

Plans are to deliver coverage to 95% of the U.K. by 2025, with the greatest improvements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the government said.

The move will see BT Group unit EE, Telefónica SA's O2, CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd.'s Three and Vodafone UK Ltd. investing £530 million in a network of new and existing shared phone masts, while the government will invest £500 million.

Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan said she hoped the agreement would be finalized by early next year.

"We are closing in on a deal with the mobile network operators so those living in rural areas will be able to get the fast and reliable mobile coverage they need and deserve," Morgan said.

As an added incentive for telcos, the U.K.'s communications regulator Ofcom is promising to release more airwaves for mobile services and drop coverage requirements from its 5G spectrum auction rules.

The big four telcos have all welcomed the move, along with trade and industry bodies, claiming it will remove the obstacles that have restricted them from stamping out 4G dark spots.

"This ambitious proposal combined with critical Government support...will [ensure] people and businesses right across the U.K. get access to the digital connectivity they need, wherever they are," said Marc Allera, CEO of BT's consumer division.

"The Shared Rural Network ... is the best way to enhance mobile connectivity for the 9.3 million living in the U.K.’s countryside," said David Dyson, CEO of Three U.K.

"By working together, we will deliver better coverage while offering more choice for consumers and businesses using far fewer masts," said Nick Jeffery, CEO of Vodafone U.K.

"By providing a much-needed boost to rural communities, the Shared Rural Network represents a vital step in bridging the digital divide," said Mark Evans, CEO of Telefónica U.K.

"Working in partnership with the Government all four mobile operators, through a programme of shared infrastructure, will virtually eliminate partial not-spots and then go further to bring 4G coverage to the most rural parts of the U.K.," said Hamish MacLeod, director at Mobile UK.

The deal forms part of the government's connectivity infrastructure overhaul plans for nationwide full-fiber broadband and 5G rollouts.