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5G ambitions in jeopardy as ECC reform is delayed

James Pearce
December 22, 2015

Operators may be forced to cut network investment to cover £270 million mast rental costs 

Operators may be forced to cut network investment to bring 5G to the UK, after the government announced regulatory changes around access to masts and excessive landlord costs are unlikely to be considered until at least 2017.

The delay, announced by Digital Minister Ed Vaizey during a parliamentary debate on reforming the Electronic Communications Code (ECC), is set to cost the industry more than £270 million next year, as mast rental costs on private land will continue to be up to 31 times higher than other utilities.

Operators had expected the ECC to have been reformed this year, following assurances last December. The impact could now have major ramifications on the UK’s ambitions of a national roll out of 5G by 2020, with investment in rural areas in particular now at risk.

Direct impact

“We’ve lost millions of pounds over this,” said EE director of public policy, Kip Meek.

“EE has invested a lot in innovating its network, but we can only spend the money once. We have 18,000 masts and this is definitely slowing our investment in our infrastructure.

“There is a direct impact on 5G technology. If there is not a benign environment for investment then it means businesses (operators) can find better places to spend their money.

“When looking at the rollout of 5G in rural areas with worse returns due to fewer people, we could decide not to invest. So it has a direct impact. If it’s all being spent on rental rates, and it is an alarming operational cost, then we’re going to be less able to spend it on technology improving the site.”

Calls for reform

In total EE, O2, Vodafone and Three have around 35,000 mobile sites (masts) combined with an average yearly rental cost of £7,506 in rural areas and £9,226 in urban sites, resulting in yearly costs across the industry of around £280 million.

This compares with an average site cost for the electric industry of £283 per year per pylon – significantly less than what the mobile operators pay.

Meek’s calls for swift reform were echoed by Vodafone EMF unit manager Dr Rob Matthews, who claimed rules around site access were too restrictive, harming the rollout of new technologies.

“We want to bring 4G and 5G to as many people as quickly as we can,” he explained. “We need better access to sites because currently the process can be too lengthy and too costly.

“We’ve been talking to the government about this for a number of years and want the changes to be made as soon as possible. ”

Wading through treacle

During the Commons debate on December 8, it was revealed that up to 70 per cent of residents in rural areas, such as Yorkshire and Lincolnshire experience some form of coverage issues.

Vaizey, who refused to speak to Mobile News, fell short of apologising for the delays, but described reforming the 30-year-old Code as “like wading through treacle”, due to the number of interests at stake.

“We do want to revise the code and to change it to support the rollout of mobile and broadband while protecting the rights of landowners.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the government would bring forward measures at the “earliest opportunity.”

“The government remains committed to a reformed ECC. We want the code to be clear and fit for purpose and help improve network coverage so consumers can have a choice of high-quality telecommunications services.”

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