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Government claims Electronic Communications Code reforms will boost UK network coverage

Government plans to cut costs associated with letting mobile operators build infrastructure on private land could lead to lower mobile costs for consumers, it is claimed

A government-backed overhaul of the legislation governing how network infrastructure builds proceed on private land is expected to pave the way for lower mobile charges and increased coverage in remote parts of the country.  

The government wants to rework the 32-year-old Electronic Communications Code. This enables telecommunications firms to build infrastructure on public land, or stake claims on private sites, to deliver network coverage across the UK.

The proposed reforms intend to stay true to this aim, while updating the legislation to account for the ever-growing demand from the general public for mobile connectivity.

“The government wants to reform the code to put in place modern regulation which fully supports the roll-out of digital communications infrastructure,” wrote Ed Vaizey, the minister of state for Culture and the Digital Economy, in the foreword to the report outlining the government’s plans.

“The infrastructure is vitally important to citizens right across the UK, as digital communications become an ever more essential part of the economic and social fabric of this country.”

One of the major changes will see telcos granted similar rights to utility providers when it comes to dealing with network infrastructure builds on private land.

As such, when it comes to valuing these sites, the government wants to move away from a system where the cost of obtaining licences to access these sites are dictated by the market value of the land.

Read more about government broadband deployments

Instead, the government wants these transactions to abide by compulsory land purchase principles, which are used to secure land considered essential for improving the lives of citizens.

Under the terms of such an arrangement, the landowner would be reimbursed based on the current value of the site. This valuation would, in turn, ignore the financial impact carrying out the construction would have.

“This will ensure property owners will be fairly compensated for use of their land, but also explicitly acknowledge the economic value of all of society created from investment in digital infrastructure,” the report continues.

“In this respect, it will put digital communications infrastructure on a similar regime to utilities, such as electricity and water. This will help deliver the coverage that is needed, even in hard to reach areas.”

Benefits of the reforms

The reforms also seek to make it easier for communications providers to deploy and maintain their infrastructure, while reducing the reliance on courts to resolve disputes between landowners and telcos, so that infrastructure projects can proceed without any unnecessary delays.

“The overall package of reforms strikes the right balance of interests between site providers, communications providers and – most importantly – the public interest in ensuring communications services meet the needs of UK citizens in the digital era,” the report adds.

“The whole of the UK will benefit from the long-term reforms put in place by the new code, as investment in digital communications infrastructure is made easier, leading to a more sustainable, robust and technologically-advanced physical network.”

Impact assessment

A Regulatory Policy Committee assessment of the proposals, featuring calculations carried out by telco consultancy Nordicity, suggests the move could cut the cost of acquiring licences by around 40%.

“This would result in a decrease in expenditure, not just through a fall in the rents paid to landowners by mobile network operators and wholesale infrastructure providers, but also through a fall in the associated business rates paid to local authorities,” the assessment document states.

“The benefit to network providers from lower rental payments would result in an equivalent cost to landowners.”

Consumers also stand to benefit from the changes, the document states, in the form of lower prices and improved services, because network operators will – seemingly – have more money to invest in their services. 

While there is not set timetable as to when the changes will be introduced, the government said it wants the measures pushed through primary legislation as soon as possible, “so citizens can start to benefit from the increased investment in the UK’s digital infrastructure that these reforms encourage,” the report concludes.

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