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Virgin Media O2 to use Elon Musk’s Starlink to boost rural mobile signals

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station carrying 24 Starlink satellites
Musk's network of satellites will carry calls, texts and data to remote mobile masts - Craig Bailey/Florida Today

Rural communities are in line for a coverage boost after Virgin Media O2 (VMO2) struck a deal to use Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites.

The telecoms group has begun using Starlink’s low earth orbit (LEO) satellite technology to deliver mobile connections to remote locations, such as the Scottish Highlands.

Mr Musk’s company operates a network of roughly 5,000 satellites, which orbit 350 miles above the earth and beam down signals.

The technology will be used to carry calls, texts and data to mobile masts in areas where fibre cables, which usually underpin mobile networks, are too difficult or costly to install.

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VMO2 said the deal, reached through parent company Telefonica, will help to tackle so-called signal “not-spots” that have blighted rural communities across the country.

It comes as a £1bn government project to improve rural mobile coverage faces a delay of up to two years.

VMO2, Vodafone and Three have warned ministers they will not hit an initial deadline of June for expanding their 4G coverage to reach 88pc of the UK’s landmass.

The National Audit Office has also warned that the over-budget Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme, set to be fully completed by early 2027, is running behind schedule.

The mobile networks have written to the Government asking for more time to build new masts, blaming the delays on the pandemic and difficulties in securing planning permission.

However, it is understood that ministers have not yet agreed to any extension.

VMO2 expects to complete the bulk of its upgrade plan on time, with the company recently using helicopters to deliver mobile masts to the remote Scottish island of Skye.

Bosses said they were exploring other uses of satellite technology, including providing coverage for emergency services and improving mobile connections at special events.

Jeanie York, chief technology officer at VMO2, said: “We’re leaving no stone unturned when it comes to improving rural connectivity and are continuously looking for new ways to boost signal in remote areas.

“By constantly finding new ways to deliver for our customers, we are bringing reliable mobile coverage to rural communities faster and helping to close the UK’s digital divide.”

Earlier this year, The Telegraph revealed that BT is also in talks with Starlink over ways to improve rural coverage.

The former telecoms monopoly is testing Starlink equipment at its Adastral Park research centre near Ipswich.

The tests are focused on ways of improving broadband connections, but the company is also exploring ways of improving mobile signals.