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Britain’s 5G roll-out – What is plan B?

The government has ambitious aspirations in respect of Britain’s full-fibre and 5G networks. But among all the Brexit fog, has it managed to shoot itself in the foot with the roll-out of 5G mobile?

The government has ambitious aspirations in respect of Britain’s digital connectivity, setting what it describes as “clear, ambitious targets for the availability of full fibre and 5G networks”.

The aim is to connect 15 million premises to full-fibre by 2025, with coverage across all parts of the country by 2033. Most of the population will have 5G coverage by 2027. However, among all the Brexit fog, the government appears to have managed to shoot itself in the foot with the roll-out of 5G mobile.

The Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in 2018 states: “Alongside finishing the roll-out of 4G networks to meet existing mobile demand, we want the UK to be a world leader in 5G to take early advantage of this new technology.”

There are potentially many benefits from 5G, such as faster and more reliable connectivity, through to less obvious ones, including new healthcare wearables such as Fitbits and the remote control of streetlights and traffic management. It is a critical part of our technological future, with implications for many aspects of our daily lives.

But while 5G networks will be based on fibre connections as far as possible, there ultimately remains the need to use radio signals to make the connection to mobile devices at the edge of the network. With 5G, as with other networks, this will require many radio base stations to provide continuous service. In short, more mast sites are needed.

The demand comes from both network expansion and the need to replace sites that are being taken out of the networks – which is usually because the owners of land on which the masts are situated wish to redevelop that land.

The ability of mobile network operators to enter into agreements for new sites, and to retain existing ones, will be an important factor in the successful roll out and expansion of 5G network capabilities.

In December 2017, the government disregarded the concerns of the Law Commission and enacted a new Electronic Communications Code incorporating the “no scheme” valuation methodology, which has since formed the backdrop against which negotiations for new mast sites have taken place.

It means that landowners are now being offered only a few hundred pounds by network operators, backed up by the threat to take the landowner to a tribunal if the offer is not accepted, compared to the thousands of pounds that were previously agreed.

Few rental offers are being accepted by landowners, with the consequence that the network operators are having to drive their site acquisition process through the courts.

This situation is compounded by the significant number of property owners with telecoms infrastructure on their land that are now looking to secure its removal.

In effect, the sums now being offered by network operators are simply insufficient to motivate any owner of land or property assets to engage with them regarding the installation of telecoms equipment.

Read more about 5G roll-out

  • The UK’s longest-standing mobile operator, Vodafone, has officially turned on its 5G mobile network at an event in London, and reintroduced unlimited data packages for users as it looks to shake up the market.
  • EE launched the UK’s first official 5G network at the end of May 2019, but with limited availability and 4G networks improving all the time, industry watchers say there is no big impetus for users to upgrade yet.

This isn’t just about land owners losing out on income, but rather it is about the ability of Britain to compete globally in terms of digital connectivity.

The government has a self-inflicted problem. While the objectives of a digitally connected UK plc are very laudable, the responsibility for delivering that lies largely with private companies and their shareholders.

If telecoms operators are unable to agree terms for new agreements voluntarily with landowners, they can rely on their statutory powers to secure an agreement through tribunal, but this is not a quick process, and one case started in August 2018 has recently been listed for hearing in November 2019.

To date, network operators have primarily been using the code to try to drive down rent payments on existing sites that have come up for renewal. Faced with wholesale resistance from landowners, network operators will have to routinely resort to tribunal to secure the agreements that the country needs, but the tribunal will not be able to deliver quickly enough. 

In practical terms, a market that was operating effectively and delivering sites, up to the implementation of the new code, has now been destroyed. If 5G is to successfully roll out, new sites will be needed in the urban areas and city centres where there is the demand for massive amounts of data.

It appears that, rather than oiling the wheels of the mobile telecoms market, the new Electronic Communication Code has brought about a complete seizure.

With sites being removed all the time for redevelopment, along with the inability to secure new sites quickly, Britain’s connectivity is unlikely to improve and could fall further behind other countries.

However, introducing further legislation could be a knee-jerk reaction. Short of completely cutting out property owners and granting draconian powers to telecoms companies to install whatever they want, whenever they want and without judicial interference, further legislation is unlikely to deliver the number of sites in the locations required to deliver the government’s ambitions.

Government may need to consider using more carrots and fewer sticks, as asking property owners to take one for the team is not being received well at all.

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