Supporting mobile connectivity – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Committee of Public Accounts

Related inquiry: Supporting mobile connectivity

Date Published: 28 May 2024

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Accessing the internet while on the go is a part of daily life for most people in the UK, and yet the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology (the Department) has more work to do to ensure the UK has the mobile connectivity it needs now and in the future. Launched in 2020, the Shared Rural Network programme aims to increase 4G coverage from 91.4% of the UK landmass to 95% by December 2025. Four years in, coverage is at 93.1%. To meet the 95% target, progress will need to continue at the same rate as the past year, even though the remaining locations will be even harder to reach and connect. This pace may not be sustainable and three of the four mobile network operators have already advised the Department that they are each unlikely to meet interim obligations, set by Ofcom, to increase their own 4G coverage to 88% of the UK landmass by 30 June 2024.

The Government’s £501 million investment in the programme is subject to cost pressures, which combined with delivery challenges means installing new masts will cost more than expected. The Department is not yet certain by how much the programme’s costs will rise as a result of these pressures, how much of any cost increase will be borne by the taxpayer and whether cost pressures will affect mobile network operators’ ability to achieve coverage targets.

Furthermore, the Department has not confirmed which specific areas are in the 5% of the UK that will not have 4G connectivity, and it does not yet have a plan to ensure people in these areas are not left behind. It has not communicated to stakeholders how any gains from increased mobile connectivity translate into better outcomes for consumers and businesses, especially in areas with very low populations.

Public reporting of mobile connectivity across the UK is not fit for purpose. Ofcom’s data for measuring connectivity often does not reflect people’s experience. People often experience worse coverage than reported because of local geography or building materials used within premises. The Department itself lacks information on whether mobile network operators are on track to meet targets to improve connectivity for road users and premises, and has insufficient data to judge whether connectivity on UK railways is improving.

While the Department has a strategy for supporting 5G, we are unconvinced about what it has achieved to date for its £400 million investment or how it will demonstrate progress. We therefore encourage our successor Committee to keep a close eye on the above issues concerning both 4G and 5G mobile connectivity, and to continue to hold the Department to account for progress on both.

New technologies—such as low orbiting satellites—are emerging very fast. The Government needs to consider these in conjunction with its other policies to ensure investment produces the most favourable results.