Small cells and 5G: What the Digital Economy Bill changes mean for operators

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The new Digital Economy Bill, referenced in The Queen’s Speech, has now been debated at its Second Hearing in Parliament and is now going through the process of eventually becoming law. Part of the Digital Economy Bill includes amending the Electronic Communications Code (ECC).

The ECC has, among other provisions, guidelines for arrangements between landowners and mobile mast owners including restrictions for mast height and location. The ECC has not been drastically overhauled since it was written in 1984 over three decades ago; well before the advent of anything resembling modern mobile technology.

For the telco industry, significant change to mobile infrastructure is needed for the UK to keep pace with today’s advances in wireless services and with the mobile revolution that’s happening around the globe. So what does the telecoms industry need to know about these proposed amendments?

The reform of the Electronic Communications Code was proposed in the last Digital Economy Bill by Ed Vaizey, former Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries. George Osbourne also announced in the 2016 Budget that he was looking to bring greater freedom and flexibility to UK networks. The aim of the original provisions of the ECC concerning mobile masts was to balance the rights of wireless mobile operators and landowners while supporting the rollout of digital infrastructure in the UK. The objectives were to ensure that new masts could be built on landowners’ property for fair compensation and to provide a framework to help resolve disputes between the landowner and mobile operator. The problem today is that this ECC was developed at a time when the mobile industry and consumer demand for mobile services were in their infancy.

The proposed changes to the ECC call for the height restrictions on masts to be adjusted so that masts can be extended without planning permission. Currently network coverage in some rural areas is still intermittent or non-existent.

While provisioning mobile signal in remote areas is by no means straightforward, this is creating a division in consumers between mobile coverage “haves” and “have nots”, which we really shouldn’t expect in 2016. This should concern operators, as the recent Digital Economy Bill also suggested giving Ofcom the power to fine operators if they do not meet their targets for coverage to ensure that they deliver on their commitments, such as providing 95% coverage across the UK by 2020.

A tall order

The proposed changes to the ECC could go a long way in helping operators avoid this problem and create better coverage. It would allow operators to build new masts up to 25 metres high in non-protected areas without planning permission; the maximum mast height is currently 15 metres. It would also allow operators to build new masts in protected areas up to 20 metres rather than the current 15 metres without planning permission.

Operators will also be able to increase the height of existing masts to 20 metres in both non-protected and protected areas without prior approval; between 20 metres and 25 metres in non-protected areas with a prior approval; and have a new automatic right to upgrade the infrastructure on their masts in protected areas to align with existing rights in non-protected areas.

The proposed improvements are not unique to the UK; across the world operators and regulators are looking at ways to bolster mobile network coverage to cover black spots and poor service in specific areas and to accommodate the imminent groundswell of consumer demand. In the US for example, the FCC’s Wireless Communications Bureau Chief John Wilkins has called to streamline small cell deployments to create a denser mobile network ready to cope with the increased demand of 5G.

The changes to the ECC also suggest revising the way network operators rent land for masts from landowners, including extricating mast rent prices from value of the landowner’s property. While these masts are important to local communities and businesses, good relationships with landowners will be essential to ensuring that infrastructure progresses in the future. A free market model where landowners can negotiate rents openly with operators is likely to be the best way forward. Another point that could help pave the way for more masts to be built is the speed at which masts can be removed at the end of a rental period. This would encourage more landowners to allow for masts to be installed, in a way that benefits them financially, while allowing them to swiftly sell the property, if they so choose, at the end of the rental period.

Change is needed for the mobile industry

The changes proposed in the Digital Economy bill regarding the ECC are a big step in the right direction and will help meet a growing need for improved digital infrastructure in this country. Improved coverage capabilities, faster infrastructure deployment, more effective site management, and more realistic lease arrangements – these are the opportunities that the proposed ECC changes provide the operators. Ultimately, if the operators act on these changes, the net result should benefit consumers in the immediate term and beyond. 

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