Claude Wangen -

UK government reviews law on access to land for digital infrastructure

Reacting to reports that agreements have been slow to conclude, holding up the roll-out of better mobile and broadband connectivity, UK government consults on changes to the legal framework for agreements on access to land for digital infrastructure

Despite the brickbats thrown at the current UK government for its lack of responsiveness and proactivity in many of its programmes, the pace of its comms infrastructure buildout cannot be held to much reproach, and it is now investigating new laws with a view to providing more homes with improved internet and mobile coverage.

To this end, the UK government is launching a consultation on whether to make changes to the law around digital infrastructure, such as phone masts and broadband cabinets.

It claimed progress has been made since the UK’s Electronic Communications Code was reformed in 2017, to support faster and easier roll-out in rural areas, balancing the need for digital infrastructure with the rights of landowners and other site providers. The UK government said that now more than ever it was important that operators were able to develop networks at pace.

Yet stakeholders have reported that negotiations do not always progress smoothly, and agreements can take a long time to complete. This, the UK government said, is holding back homes and businesses from accessing better mobile coverage and much faster gigabit broadband.

Announced by minister for digital infrastructure Matt Warman, the consultation will review the legal framework for building and maintaining these structures on private and public land. It will explore whether changes to the code are required to encourage faster and more collaborative negotiations between landowners and telecoms providers. It will also examine whether there are ways that the use of existing infrastructure can be improved.

“As part of our vision to level up the UK with better connectivity and faster broadband speeds, we’re looking at reforming the law so people can get the benefits of better connectivity as soon as possible,” said Warman. “We’re also investing £5.5bn to roll out nationwide gigabit broadband and improve poor mobile coverage.”

Other issues on which the consultation will seek views include issues that have arisen relating to obtaining and using code agreements, rights to upgrade and share infrastructure, and difficulties relating to the renewal of expired agreements. Views are also being sought on whether greater certainty is needed for operators and landowners about what will happen when their land agreements come to an end and how they can be renewed.

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The consultation also proposes reviewing automatic rights which can be used when a phone mast needs to be upgraded from 4G to 5G, or shared among operators to remove coverage blackspots to make clear when these rights should be available.

This latter regard is timely, and the consultation comes just as the first stage of the UK government’s Shared Rural Network (SRN) programme – which aims to supporting the deployment of 5G and extend 4G mobile coverage to hitherto badly served rural areas, three of the UK’s leading mobile operators, O2, Three and Vodafone – announced a partnership to build and share 222 new mobile masts to boost rural coverage across the UK.

“The government has set ambitious targets on extending coverage and capacity, and getting the regulatory framework right to enable operators to deploy their networks is essential,” added Hamish MacLeod, director at Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators. “We welcome the consultation on the Electronic Communications Code as a vital part of this strategy.”

The consultation aims to provide all interested parties with the opportunity to comment on the scale and scope of potential reforms. The deadline for responses is 24 March 2021.

In December 2020, the UK government’s stated aim to roll out gigabit broadband across 85% of the UK by 2025 was declared unrealistic in a withering report by Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee, noting the original commitment to provide £5bn of public funding for hard-to-reach areas had been reduced.

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