UK government calls on comms firms to limit installation of telegraph poles

After public demonstrations, minister urges communications industry to ‘do whatever it takes’ to share existing infrastructure to avoid ‘inappropriately or unnecessarily throwing up’ new telegraph poles

After a series of public demonstrations across the UK against the installation of telegraph poles, data and digital infrastructure minister Julia Lopez has called on UK telcos to curb the installation of new poles as the roll-out of gigabit broadband across the country continues.

While accepting that telegraph poles are crucial for bringing faster and cheaper connectivity to people across the UK, in a public letter to network operators – principally Virgin Media O2, Openreach and KCOM – Lopez has requested that communications service providers (CSPs) do “everything possible” to share existing telegraph poles before deciding to build new ones.

The minister advised that new infrastructure should only be built above ground when sharing existing infrastructure or installing lines underground is not viable, and then only after ensuring appropriate community engagement has taken place and that it will not cause obstructions to traffic or unduly impact the visual amenity of the local area.

Installation of telegraph poles in England and Wales falls under a permitted planning statutory instrument derived from the Town and Country Planning Order 2015 that means construction can potentially go ahead without approved planning permission from local councils. The CSPs said they offer notification of intended prospective work in the relevant locations. They must give at least 28 days’ notice of intention to install a pole.

However, residents’ groups across the country have issued complaints about poles, such as being unsightly and potentially environmentally unfriendly, demanding that full-fibre gigabit infrastructure is built underground. In some recent demonstrations against pole installation in the north-west of England, feelings have run so high as to warrant police presence after members of the public attempted to prevent engineers from working.

Already, network operators are required to share apparatus where they are able to do so, with new measures introduced to make it easier for them to upgrade and share the use of existing underground ducts and telegraph poles. In her letter, Lopez provided guidance to local planning authorities on how to raise complaints and asked for Ofcom’s support in tackling the challenge.

“Telegraph poles are a key piece of infrastructure bringing faster connectivity to communities and businesses across the country. Most telecoms companies are doing a fantastic job in delivering that connectivity with the support of those communities by sharing existing infrastructure and taking into account surroundings when putting up new poles. But some firms are losing that vital community support by inappropriately or unnecessarily throwing up new infrastructure,” she said.

“I have today written to operators asking them to do whatever it takes to share existing infrastructure. We have already made a number of changes to the law to make it easier for them to do so – including allowing operators to fly lines from poles owned by other providers and sharing underground ducts. We reserve the right to take further action if things do not improve and will be discussing next steps with Ofcom.”

Commenting on the issue, an Openreach spokesperson told Computer Weekly: “We agree with the minister about sharing access to ducts and poles. We do this already and, since 2011, more than 1.9 million of our poles and 260,000km of our underground duct have been used by 169 other builders to extend their own networks, connecting more than 700,000 customers. It’s been a great success for the industry and something we think should be replicated by other providers on comparable commercial terms.”

The infrastructure industry has indicated that it is already working on the issue. East Yorkshire-based broadband provider KCOM has just produced the results of a feasibility study, describing how other broadband providers could deliver services using its infrastructure.

It noted that since receiving a request for access to its passive infrastructure in January from rival provider Connexin, the two companies have worked to create a blueprint of systems and processes to handle and deliver requests for sharing KCOM’s ducts and poles, potentially saving local residents from the “stress and inconvenience” caused by the proliferation of new poles in streets across Hull and East Yorkshire.

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