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UK operators explore barter-based mast-sharing to end rural ‘not spots’

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UK mobile operators BT, O2, Three and Vodafone are in talks to agree a new barter system which would allow them to share masts more easily to boost rural coverage.

Research from the UK’s industry watchdog, Ofcom, finds that in a fifth of rural areas it is not possible to make a voice call on all four networks.

Under the plans, to access a site owned by a rival, an operator would need to let the competitor ­install equipment on one of its own masts in return.

The companies hope that the system would allow them to invest more efficiently and meet the government’s 95% coverage target without the need for further regulatory intervention.

Supercharged sharing

Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s consumer brands EE, BT and Plusnet, called on government and industry to get behind the proposals. Writing in the Telegraph, he said,  “In reality, mast sharing across the industry exists today, but we want to work with the other networks to supercharge this to give consumers more choice. I’m confident that, if we can get the government and the rest of the industry to agree to this pledge, we can deliver on the ambition to provide everyone in the country with the good mobile coverage they need.”

However, the proposals could see pushback from landlords who benefit from leasing multiple mast sites to cover the same area. There may also be competition concerns from Ofcom.

Allera said that calls to mandate roaming across networks are "misplaced" and dilute any incentive to expand into rural areas, while at the same time giving an "unfair leg-up" to companies that haven't made efforts to improve rural connectivity before. He also argued that it wouldn't actually fix the issue of not spots.