Digital infrastructure5G & MobileBattle over street furniture slowing 5G rollout

Battle over street furniture slowing 5G rollout

A dozens of local authority disputes are risking slowing 5G mobile rollout in the UK and the government is neither providing guidance nor seeking compromise

A battle for the control of street furniture is threatening to delay the 5G rollout in the UK. Street furniture, like lampposts and taller structures, are useful for installing small cells that can help mobile network operators (MNOs) to expand their coverage.

The rollout is being stalled by at least two years over legal wrangling. 5G requires a denser network architecture than 4G in order to deliver its best performance. As a result mobile operators like BT, EE, Three UK, O2 and Vodafone are all hunting for places to install their kit and public street furniture are becoming an obvious target. These lampposts are also used for CCTV, WiFi Hotspots, EV car chargers and environmental sensors.

Street furniture has suddenly become hot property and as a result, MNOs are claiming access to lampposts and other tall structures in cities, and are threatening legal action to any local authorities or landlords who stand in their way. Cash-strapped councils and landlords are well aware of this demand.

New code backfired

A new electronics communications code designed to ease the rollout has backfired, according to Theo Blackwell, London’s chief digital officer. The code’s ambiguous wording on the issue of access to street furniture and lack of accompanying guidance had encouraged expensive and lengthy litigation.

This new digital code has stifled any type of deals and made councils vulnerable to legal challenge. Blackwell has claimed five other London boroughs had been threatened with litigation by BT for alleged similar abuses of the code.

He said:“Whilst the intention of the code was to make it easier and cheaper for MNOs to roll out infrastructure, by not providing guidance nor seeking compromise, the government have in fact delayed deployments by two years, whilst the new code is being tested in the courts.”

A spokeswoman for BT said: “We’re working with local, regional and national governments to roll out even better connectivity to the areas that need it most as quickly and efficiently as possible. Ensuring that street furniture can be used to host digital infrastructure will become increasingly important to deliver the services customers will expect. So, working closely with councils, we’re keen to remove existing barriers to access, reflecting the approach set out in the new electronic communications code.”

She pointed out the company had handed back nine exclusivity deals it previously had with other councils to demonstrate its commitment to open access.

Local disputes jeopardising 5G roll out

Experts say the sheer volume of local disputes is jeopardising the government’s pledge to get 15m premises connected to 5G by 2025.

A new tribunal system designed to speed up disputes is already backlogged with dozens of cases. Dates for hearings in new disputes are not available until next year at the earliest.

Alicia Foo, a property lawyer and partner at Pinsent Masons who represents both operators and landowners, warned: “More and more cases are clogging up the tribunals than ever was the case under the old code. Our court system takes a long time so a two-year delay is not inconceivable.

“Everyone thought the new code was going to be this brave new world of faster connectivity, but on the question of money it has become very polarised between landowners and operators. I wonder whether the government was taken aback by the sheer number of operators who just want to have a go.”

Opposite problem for rural areas

Interestingly, sparsely populated rural areas have the opposite problem. Councils in such areas have to struggle to generate interest from mobile providers. North Yorkshire, England’s largest council area, has secured a £1m grant to build three masts in remote areas to supplement its network of 50,000 lampposts. But there has been no interest from mobile operators.

Don Mackenzie, the council’s lead member for access, says: “We would be only too happy to offer mobile network operators whatever they wish in order to improve the connectivity of our residents, but there’s been a barren response. We must give our residents equal opportunities and would like to see mobile operators to the same.”

It is disingenuous for operators to demand open access in lucrative areas while ignoring incentives to provide any coverage in rural areas. He said: “Never mind 4G, there are areas of our county that don’t get 3G or in some cases 2G, and in some patches there’s no signal at all. It’s the rural areas where we have to step in and give the market a shake-up.”

In march, BT called for access to street furniture to boost 4G and 5G coverage and had insisted that the current concessions model for locating mini mobile masts on street furniture such as lamp posts and CCTV columns a barrier to 4G and future 5G investments.

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