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Networks pay £5BN to boost mobile coverage in government deal

The agreement between EE, Three, Vodafone, O2 and the government sees networks required to hit 90 percent geographic coverage by 2017.

The deal is designed to improve signal in parts of the country that suffer from a lack of signal. antb/Shutterstock

EE, O2, Vodafone and Three will plunge £5 billion into improving the nation's mobile coverage, having forged a deal with the government to eliminate so-called 'not-spots'.

The tie-up requires the UK's biggest phone companies to get voice and text coverage to 90 percent of the UK's geographic landmass by 2017, potentially halving the number of areas that suffer from dodgy or non-existent signal. The agreement comes hot on the heels of a proposed government plan to force operators to let customers roam onto each others' networks.

Having railed against those proposals, which were designed to improve signal quality in rural parts of the country, the government and operators have now arrived at a different deal that watchdog Ofcom will enforce. "I am pleased to have secured a legally binding deal with the four mobile networks," UK Culture Secretary Sajid Javid said in a statement.

"If national roaming had been pushed," Ian Fogg, mobile analyst at IHS told CNET, "that would have required significant work to make it a decent experience as handsets switch between [operators'] infrastructure. This is essentially business as usual, adding more masts in more rural areas.

"Operators clearly need to be nudged to improve geographical coverage of rural areas. I think they much prefer this way of doing it rather than national roaming, which had technical issues, business model issues and a lot more complexity around it", Fogg said.

The 4G auction, the results of which were announced by Ofcom in early 2013, have seen UK operators grab lower-bandwidth spectrum that will help in improving rural signal. "All the networks have access to sub 1GHz spectrum, so it's more achievable now to deliver good rural population coverage," Fogg noted.

Meanwhile EE, the UK's biggest mobile network, is poised to be bought by BT for a massive £12.5bn. That deal, which could see BT laying claim to an extra 24.5 million customers, is dependent on competition watchdogs giving the green light, however.