Exclusive: operators concerned over mast deployment regulation

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The UK’s four mobile operators have warned changes to laws on mast deployment have not been “game changing” and more needs to be done to improve coverage.

Their remarks come more than two years after a landmark deal with the coalition government was signed to eliminate ‘not spots’ by boosting national coverage from 69 per cent to 90 per cent. A deadline of 2017 was set, however, operators agreed at the time that mast numbers must rise from 27,500 to 40,000.

They also claimed it could not= be achieved unless major changes were made to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC), which sets planning permission and costs for mast rollout. It was agreed the ECC caused delays and imposed unnecessary cost restrictions.

According to research from Analysys Mason by the government, the annual land rental costs is £5,500, mast construction £150,000 with annual maintenance and insurance costs of £1,500. Site negotiations for tower upgrades or renewals can take 12-18 months to settle.

Legal fees for settling these disputes range between £2,500 and £5,000. The time taken to upgrade masts can increase from 30 days to 108 days when the lease requires renewing.

The government made changes to planning laws in England last year, which enables operators easier access to mast sites and to increase the structures’ height by 15 metres to enhance coverage. Scotland and Wales have yet to follow suit.

On track

EE CEO Marc Allera said: “We’re on track to hit the 90 per cent geographic coverage target and that will be for 4G, while the obligation is for 2G. That is despite the delays in the changes required in the ECC. We’re optimistic a new Code will make it easier but there are elements of this that have yet to be implemented.

“As we roll out sites to provide coverage, we’re finding this a very difficult thing to do around planning/landlord permissions and rents. Much work remains to be done and this needs to happen in the quickest timeframe possible.”

O2 COO Derek McManus insisted changes to the ECC must be around small cell mobile sites, which it claims are unobtrusive compared to conventional mobile towers.

“Small cells are a solution towards helping meet the government’s ambitions for 5G. They’re unobtrusive and can help deliver more data to people. It’s important we get the right planning regimes to help deliver these technologies and extend coverage. The ECC has seen steps forward, but the small cell network has not been adequately covered and more needs to be done.”

Not Game Changing

Vodafone Group CEO Vittorio Colao claimed the progress has not been “game changing”. “We have seen some improvements. We have higher mast heights and slightly better planning procedures.

It’s not a completely different world. Every country has its own speed and processes. I wouldn’t define it as a complete game changer.”

Three CEO Dave Dyson added: “Our baseline expectation when the 90 per cent coverage obligation was announced was that the ECC reform would have gone further and would have happened sooner to deliver improved mobile coverage for UK consumers.

“Delays to both ECC and planning reforms have made meeting the 90 per cent target particularly challenging but we are on track to do so.

“It is now crucial that government focuses on reform to the planning and building regulation regime.”

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