Network CEOs warn government to act fast over phone masts

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Number of masts must rise to 40,000 to hit coverage targets and eliminate not-spots 

The CEOs of Vodafone, EE and O2 have warned the newly elected Conservative government that “major changes” must be made to current rules on phone mast deployment or it can forget about achieving its 90 per cent national coverage target by 2017.

The goal was set during a “landmark” deal between all UK operators and the coalition back in December to boost geographic coverage from 69 per cent and help eliminate not-spots.

Operators, who were assured planning legislation would be reviewed, say the number of masts in the UK must rise from 27,500 to 40,000 over the next two years to meet the target.

However, this may not be achievable under the current Electronics Communications Code (managed by Ofcom), which they claim causes delays to roll outs and imposes unnecessary and costly restrictions, incomparable to anything else in the market.

Planning woes

Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao labelled UK planning laws as the most “difficult” he has encountered. Vodafone has operations across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific.

“The deployment of Project Spring (Vodafone’s £20 billion network upgrade investment) is more difficult in the UK than in our other markets,” he told Mobile News.

“A combination of planning permission and landlords makes it more difficult to quickly develop sites here. We need major changes to the ECC to be able to rollout faster. Installing equipment, whether it is an antenna, masts, or cables, has to be made easier and less expensive to us.”

Set-up costs

According to reports, set up costs for masts are around £100,000 each, with average annual landlord fees ranging from £7,500 (rural) to £9,500 (urban).

This compares to just £270 (rural) and £280 (urban) a year set by the ECC for standing equipment used by other utility firms, such as energy. The Mobile Operators Association believes operators could save up to £271 million a year if costs were more aligned.

There are also calls for changes around operators abilities to access, repair or upgrade existing sites. Current rules state landlords can dictate a compensation fee as well as decide when access to their land is granted.

This is in contrast to BT which has a legal right to enter sites.

O2 CEO Ronan Dunne insists changes must be made to improve services offered. “We should have the same rights of access to sites and public land to enable us to meet customers’ expectations,” he said.

“When we spoke to the Government before Christmas, we said they needed to change the Electronics Communications Code and the Infrastructure Bill. Customers are increasingly frustrated with the inability to give seamless national coverage, and that frustration is shared by the other mobile operators and UK Government.”

EE CEO Olaf Swantee added: “It is important the new government now in place delivers on the previous commitment to undertake supportive reform of the Electronic Communications Code, as part of our commitment to deliver 90 per cent geographical coverage.

“If the country wants better mobile coverage, legislation must make that possible.”

Mobile News contacted the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who confirmed plans to reform the code are ongoing and will be announcing its “next steps” shortly.

“The government remains committed to reforming the ECC so it better supports the rollout of communications infrastructure and the expansion of mobile coverage, while taking into consideration the needs of all involved – landowners and the communications industry alike.”

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