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Ministers urge local councils to lead on broadband and mobile

Digital minister Matt Warman and local government minister Simon Clarke want local councils to do their bit to help ensure better access to connectivity during the Covid-19 recovery

The government is calling on local councils to help ensure that everybody can access the high-quality broadband and mobile connectivity services that it believes will be critical elements of the UK’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Digital minister Matt Warman and local government minister Simon Clarke have today written to local authorities setting out plans for how they can best assist in providing full-fibre gigabit-capable broadband, and ultrafast 5G mobile network coverage, as well as offering new guidance on tackling the dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories around 5G safety that has seen violent attacks on infrastructure, abuse of telecoms workers, and even local bans.

“We want to help people get access to fast and reliable connectivity – it is a top priority for this government,” said Warman. “Councils have a vital role to play in the roll-out of digital infrastructure and while there is good work going on up and down the country, there is more we can do.

“Today I’m writing to local authorities with new guidance and advice to help them break down some of the barriers to roll-out and give them the tools they need to quell quack theories about 5G.”

Clarke added: “Councils play a critical role in delivering high-speed broadband and this new guidance will help them roll out this vital infrastructure more easily. I want councils up and down the country to ensure their communities benefit from faster internet connections and better connectivity.

“This will help to drive growth locally and is part of this government’s mission to level up every area of our country and help local areas to recover after the pandemic.”

Warman and Clarke are urging councils to follow government advice on land access and valuations so that deals granting access to communications services providers to conduct new fibre digs, erect new cabinets, and put up new 5G masts can be done more quickly. Although councils are obliged to get “best value” when agreeing land access agreements, ministers expect them to take into account non-monetary benefits, such as enhanced connectivity for residents to work from home and small companies to trade online.

The guidance also highlights some recent legal interpretations of the existing framework that indicate reductions in previous rents are to be expected.

“The updated valuation guidance published by the government will give councils the confidence to bring wider community benefits, such as enhanced mobile coverage, to their communities,” said Mobile UK director Hamish Macleod. “From an industry perspective, it means adding public assets, often located in ideal locations for radio signal broadcast, into the mix to assist in the rapid roll-out of world-class mobile connectivity.”

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The government letter also asks councils to appoint digital champions to connect multiple teams in a more cohesive local digital infrastructure strategy and make more use of the government’s “barrier-busting” team – set up by Warman’s predecessor, Matt Hancock – to remove blocks to network roll-out. Warman and Clarke emphasised the impact that both councillors and senior non-elected officials can have to drive forward strategies for building out faster networks and encouraging a more joined-up approach across highways, legal, estates and digital departments.

Finally, the new “plain English” 5G guide is designed as a resource to help councils answer questions and appropriately manage and ease concerns around the health implications of 5G. Public Health England’s guidance holds that 5G should have “no consequences” to public health and Ofcom has already published copious amounts of data on the subject.

It provides guidance from local officials on how to answer questions from members of the public, and address instances of misinformation spreading online, such as through community Facebook groups, media outlets, or via misguided, ill-informed people with large platforms or social media followings.

“The UK has a great opportunity to be a world leader in 5G – making the most of the benefits that this new technology offers people and businesses,” said Ofcom spectrum group director Philip Marnick. “So it’s important that public bodies work together to address some of the myths and misinformation around 5G, and that decisions are based on sound evidence.”

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