THREE mobile operators have joined forces to boost rural broadband coverage in the UK.

O2, Three UK and Vodafone have reached an agreement to deliver the first stage of the £1bn Shared Rural Network.

The firms will build and share 222 new 4G mobile masts, which will be used to increase broadband coverage in rural areas, with 54 new sites in England.

Their target is to reach 95 percent of the population by 2026, and it may help in the future roll-out of 5G.

The CLA said the Shared Rural Network would enhance the lives of millions in the countryside.

President of the CLA Mark Bridgeman said: “News that mobile operators will deliver the first stage of the Shared Rural Network will enhance the lives of millions of people living in the countryside and will provide a much-needed boost to rural productivity, which is 16 per cent below the national average.

“Only 66 per cent of rural areas currently have good access to 4G coverage, with only a one per cent improvement recorded last year. This agreement will hopefully speed up the process of increased coverage being rolled-out - and the improvement will help unlock investment in the rural economy.

“Better coverage could also see more businesses start-up or re-locate to the countryside, creating new jobs as the country emerges from the Covid-19 crisis. But that will only happen if the proposed timescales are fulfilled.”

The news comes as the Government launches a consultation on whether reforms to the Electronic Communications Code are needed to ensure that the deployment, upgrading and sharing of digital infrastructure, such as phone masts, can happen as quickly and efficiently as possible.