Everything Everywhere has announced plans to invest £1.5 billion to upgrade its existing network, to improve 3G data coverage and prepare for the rollout of 4G mobile technology.

The UK’s largest mobile operator, formed by the merger of Orange and T-Mobile UK last year, said it will invest the money in improved equipment that provides wider, faster and more reliable coverage, that can be easily upgraded to 4G once the appropriate spectrum becomes available.

“We believe that the UK requires a 21st century infrastructure and are committed to rolling out 4G as soon as possible to support growing data use, connect parts of the country with little or no mobile broadband, and drive economic growth,” said Olaf Swantee, chief executive of Everything Everywhere.

The plans include further integration of T-Mobile and Orange, enabling customers to use 2G and 3G signals from either of the networks interchangeably, depending on which has the stronger signal. Around 22 million customers are already using this capability, but Everything Everywhere said the official “big switch on” will happen within the next few weeks.

The company is also investing in its mobile backhaul – the fixed network that connects individual cell sites – which it claims will help deliver faster data speed for customers.

Meanwhile, Everything Everywhere has been testing Long Term Evolution (LTE) 4G technology in Cornwall, in conjunction with BT and Huawei. The technology has been touted as a way to deliver broadband to rural areas of the country, and help close the so-called “digital divide”. Everything Everywhere claims the trial has delivered satisfaction rates of over 90 percent.

However, other parts of the country have not been faring so well. The Countryside Alliance said today that it had found “very underwhelming” results after placing freedom of information requests to local authorities in Highlands and Islands, North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Herefordshire – the first four rural areas selected to receive a share of £530 million set aside by the government to help the UK achieve the best superfast broadband network in Europe by 2015.  

After questioning each local authority on how much it had received from the government, and what it had done to improve broadband, the Countryside Alliance revealed that two councils had “not spent a penny” and that others were still finding suppliers so they could get projects started.

A full-scale roll-out of 4G technology cannot happen until the regulator Ofcom completes its 4G auction, which will divvy up spectrum in the 800MHz and 2.6GHz bandwidths between Britain's major mobile operators. 800MHz spectrum, freed up by the switch-off of analogue television, is considered particularly valuable by mobile operators because it can cover large areas and penetrate buildings.

The auction was originally scheduled to take place in September 2008 but has suffered repeated setbacks, and is now scheduled for 2013, meaning that operators are unlikely to provide 4G services until 2014.