The National Audit Office (NAO) recently published a report, 'Supporting Mobile Connectivity', examining the government's goals to deliver UK-wide reliable mobile connectivity, identified as a key requirement for economic growth. The Department for Science, Innovation & Technology (DSIT) is responsible for digital connectivity policies and Building Digital UK (BDUK), as an agency of DSIT, is responsible for ensuring there is the infrastructure to deliver such policies. Part of this goal to support connectivity is through investment in remote areas. The Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, see our previous blog, aims to provide reliable 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by December 2025.

The Report

The report is split into four, examining:

  1. The UK mobile network landscape and the government's role in supporting mobile connectivity, and if DSIT will deliver UK-wide reliable mobile connectivity to meet the country's needs.
  2. The establishment of the SRN, focusing on the objectives and expected benefits, and whether DSIT and BDUK have set up effective arrangements to deliver UK-wide 4G connectivity.
  3. SRN progress, whether BDUK is on track to meet targets, and the costs and benefits of the programme.
  4. DSIT's plans to meet future demand for connectivity, assessing the approach to future challenges in implementing its 5G plans.

The NAO's key findings are set out below.

The UK Mobile Network

Regarding the percentage of the population with access to 4G connectivity, the UK is in line with other leading countries. However, the UK is behind some countries with better performing mobile networks. In 2021, mobile users in Japan had access to 4G 98% - 99.7% of the time, but this was 81% - 94% in the UK, and 47% - 70% of people in Finland had 5G coverage, higher than the 18% - 30% in the UK. The SRN seeks to improve these figures, but the programme is not without its flaws, outlined below.

Establishment of the SRN

DSIT successfully set a clear objective (its December 2025 target) to increase mobile coverage, and secured a commitment of £532 million from the UK's four mobile network operators (MNOs) – EE, Three, Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone – to cover the cost of improving coverage in remote areas with an additional £501 million of funding from the government.

However, despite having a clear objective, the narrative on outcomes for remote or sparsely populated areas is not sufficient. A clearer narrative will help with investment by setting out what the outcomes are, who will benefit, the quality of connectivity required and why investment is needed. Additionally, MNOs provide BDUK, responsible for oversight of the programme, with progress updates, but do not regularly provide specific information for BDUK to effectively examine progress.

Progress of the SRN

There has been a 1.3% increase in coverage in the UK from 2020-2023, and the SRN is behind schedule as the length of preparatory work and the extent of the difficulties in local delivery were not foreseen. Costs have significantly increased, which may detrimentally impact MNOs' ability to deliver the necessary level of coverage with current funding. While MNOs are to cover additional costs under the grant agreements, Ofcom licence agreements enable relief for excessive costs.

A performance average of 7 Mbps is expected through the SRN, but some areas will have speeds closer to Ofcom's minimum performance threshold of 2 Mbps, a speed which does not sufficiently enable group video calls and quick data downloads. This threshold was set in 2018 but may be too slow for further technological advancements. The SRN may need future upgrades to meet connectivity requirements in rural areas. If the SRN infrastructure fails to meet consumer demand, the programme's value for money will be eroded.

Future mobile connectivity

DSIT's 2023 wireless infrastructure strategy looks to provide £36 million for growth through investment in 5G and up to £100 million for research into more advanced technologies on top of around $400 million already provided for various 5G initiatives. Significant investment in MNOs will be necessary to reach DSIT's ambition for standalone 5G in all populated areas by 2030, and consideration should be given to remote areas which may be left behind. MNOs and other stakeholders have welcomed the strategy and DSIT's role in reducing investment barriers, but the strategy is not complete and outcomes will need to be clarified as it develops.


The NAO recommends DSIT and BDUK improve their ability to deliver and support UK-wide mobile connectivity in three areas:

  • DSIT and BDUK should consider amending grant agreements, facilitating information sharing and financial reviews and ensuring regular detailed data on the programme is received from MNOs to enable effective decision-making;
  • DSIT and BDUK should ensure 4G performance meets the requirements of an area by analysing SRN outcomes on level of service, working with Ofcom to improve testing and measuring coverage, monitoring consumer and business 4G use to inform support for future connectivity, and assessing how affordability and SRN outcomes for consumers are balanced; and
  • In developing the wireless infrastructure strategy, DSIT should set target dates for key decisions on outcomes, determine which enablers will be needed and where, collect data to assess how the current market will meet future connectivity needs and the government funding required, and learn from previous digital infrastructure programmes.


Scott Logan


Lucie Barnes


Carolyn McLaren

Projects Assistant