Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review is a positive step but it is deadlines that will achieve its goals
-- Gareth Elliott, Head of Policy and Communications, Mobile UK – July 2018 --
The publication of the DCMS’s Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review is a step in the right direction and begins to provide the mobile industry with a view of the Government’s ambitions and how it wants to achieve them. Its recommendations by and large mirror much of what the industry has highlighted is required for the UK to become a world leader in digital connectivity. The problem, however, is that its sense of urgency and emphasis on action needed ‘at a pace’ is not matched by a solid timetable for reform or firm commitments to reform the planning system which is not yet fit for purpose for the upcoming 5G deployment. Urgency should be the watchword here but without set deadlines and firm commitments it is difficult to see how or even when these recommendations will come about.
The Review rightly recognises significant improvements in mobile coverage over recent years, with 87% of the UK’s landmass now enjoying a 4G signal from at least one operator. This is not to forget that 4G networks were only initially rolled out in 2013. The industry continues to invest £2 billion pounds every year and coverage and capacity continues to rise even further. Already MNOs have spent hundreds of millions of pounds acquiring spectrum in the 3.4-3.6 GHz 5G band, and in 2019 thanks to the competitive nature of the industry 5G is expected to begin its first commercial deployment which outlines the ambition of mobile operators matches that of the Government.
The Government itself has not sat idly by, and its sense of urgency on the matter of mobile infrastructure deployment has grown: recent reforms to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) to make it easier and cheaper to build mobile networks were passed late last year; planning reforms to push more mobile infrastructure into the permitted development rights regime and increased flexibility on heights were introduced towards the latter end of 2016; and, a barrier-busting task force was created to identify further barriers to network deployment. These are all positive, and the results of the barrier-busting teams’ efforts are included in the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review and do match the priorities as set out by the industry:
Ensuring ECC reforms achieve their intended effect;
- Consider further planning reforms to support macro site expansion and small cell deployment;
- Improved access to public sites and exploring ways to reduce costs; facilitating access to power supplies; and
- Local solutions to address deployment barriers.
The problem, what problem? The problem is the language here. Ensure, consider, explore, encourage – these are all words with no definite timeline. 5G networks are already being planned yet the planning regime we have today is at best designed for a 3G to 4G network, not a 4G to 5G network. Further planning reforms are not simply a desirable but an essential to enable rapid 5G deployment. Commitments cannot simply be considered – firm commitments are needed. The ECC was designed to make it easier and cheaper to roll-out, but landowners have chosen to take the opportunity to freeze engagement with the industry making deployment not only more difficult but extremely challenging in the harder to reach areas.
The report talks of using the full range of available levers yet deadlines do not appear to be one of those levers. Urgency is the watchword here, as if the aim is to the lead the world we need to be ahead of our nearest competitors. Without clear actions and deadlines, we will simply be watching as others surge ahead and the UK can only watch its position on global league tables.
About Mobile UK
Mobile UK is the voice of the United Kingdom’s mobile network operators - EE, O2, Three and Vodafone.
About Building Mobile Britain
Building Mobile Britain is a campaign created by Mobile UK seeking to work with national and local government, as well as interested industry groups to overcome the challenges we face with expanding the existing mobile networks, while also developing innovative services for customers.
For further information – www.buildingmobilebritain.org.uk or #BuildingMobileBritain
Head of Policy and Communications
Tel: 07887 911 076