Background to the report

The government considers that access to good-quality mobile connectivity is key to growing the economy. Although the future pace is uncertain, demand is expected to continue to grow as greater use is made of data-intensive services and as new technologies enable new uses.

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The Department for Science, Innovation & Technology (DSIT) is responsible for government policy on digital connectivity, and Building Digital UK (BDUK), an agency of DSIT, is responsible for delivering infrastructure programmes to improve connectivity. Ofcom, the regulator and competition authority for the UK’s communications industries, issues licences to the UK’s four mobile network operators (MNOs).

While the government considers that a competitive market plays a key role in increasing capacity and meeting future customer needs, it may choose to intervene where there is a weaker commercial case for investment, such as in remote areas.

One such example is the Shared Rural Network programme, in which DSIT and BDUK are working with MNOs to deliver reliable 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by December 2025. DSIT also funds programmes that aim to create favourable conditions for investment in technologies for the UK’s future connectivity needs. It has set out its plans in its 2023 Wireless Infrastructure Strategy.

Scope of the report

This report examines whether DSIT is on track to deliver UK-wide reliable mobile connectivity that meets the country’s needs now and in the future. It also asks whether:

  • DSIT and BDUK have set up effective arrangements for delivering UK-wide 4G connectivity through the Shared Rural Network programme
  • BDUK is on track to deliver this
  • DSIT is developing a good basis for meeting the UK’s future connectivity needs

The report does not examine DSIT’s progress in delivering gigabit broadband through Project Gigabit, which we reported on in 2020, or the extent to which DSIT’s broadband and mobile programmes complement each other.


Demand for mobile data access is expected to grow as greater use is made of data-intensive services and as new technologies enable new uses. Alongside a similar-sized commitment by the private sector, DSIT and BDUK have committed around £500 million to the SRN programme.

However, delays in building new masts mean that it is currently unclear if the programme will meet its target of increasing 4G coverage to 95% of the UK landmass by December 2025, and there are concerns about the programme’s affordability.

Although BDUK is taking steps to increase the information it receives from MNOs, its information to monitor progress is still insufficient. DSIT has not fully articulated the outcomes it is seeking to achieve from improving connectivity in remote areas, who will benefit, and the quality of connectivity needed.

Under the terms of the grant agreement, additional costs are to be borne by the MNOs. However, if costs are excessive, Ofcom licence agreements allow for relief of the MNOs’ individual coverage obligations, putting achievement of the government’s coverage target at risk. Value for money will be eroded if the programme delivers infrastructure that does not meet UK consumers’ growing needs.

DSIT has considerable experience of digital infrastructure projects, including the SRN, which it must draw on as it takes forward its future connectivity strategy. It is not yet clear how much investment (in 5G or otherwise) will be made by the private sector, and what support will be needed from the government.

As its strategy develops, DSIT will need to resolve what it is aiming to achieve in different parts of the UK and economic sectors, and communicate how connectivity can deliver these outcomes, taking account of changes in user demand and advances in technology over the next decade.


Publication details

Press release

View press release (22 Feb 2024)

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