The UK government is often perceived as presenting challenges to network operators, imposing regulations that appear to curb infrastructure development plans and do little to support innovation. At the heart of the country’s telecoms legislation is Ofcom’s Electronic Communications Code (ECC), which was put in place in 1984. Since its introduction, the ECC has had some modifications, but in recent years, the government has had challenges in keeping up with the rapidly evolving private technology sphere. As a result, operators have been slowed down by outdated measures that were meant to act as a foundation for their progression; a path the country cannot afford to continue going down.
Not only is it important for the UK to offer widespread connectivity for the personal and professional communications needs of the population, it is also vital that the country is seen as a leading innovator in the telecoms sector while it undergoes negotiations to leave the European Union. Britain needs to be an attractive proposition to tech investors, and with the current status of the ECC, it’s not so enticing. Only within the last year, for example, have regulations been amended that will allow UK operators to build taller masts without needing planning approval – simplifying a process that enables operators to build sites faster (similar to processes already well established in other EU countries)
The situation is getting better, albeit slowly. For many years, owners of land where operators need to build new cell sites or upgrade existing masts have had an advantage over UK operators. They have been able to charge many times more than the market value for operators to build new masts on their land, which has caused significant time delays and financial burdens. Legislation has recently been amended to instruct landowners to sell at market value, opening the door for mobile operators to build masts where they need to (within reason), at a more cost effective price. Strategic plotting of masts means better facilities management across a network, potentially less sites (in terms of coverage) and better usage of local resources – an added benefit to the community.
Another source of early optimism for UK operators is the shift in consumer attitudes. For many years, rural residents have shunned the efforts of mobile operators to develop across their landscapes – and not just for private financial reasons. However, as society collectively seeks out and expects super fast mobile internet, rural inhabitants are increasingly calling for uncompromised connectivity as those in urban areas have had for years, and so the wheels are beginning to turn and in the same direction.
In urban areas, local authorities must work proactively with operators when plans are being made to develop mobile networks. For example, government owned buildings could be used as sites for mobile network masts in order to increase coverage with zero disturbances to private landowners; an efficient and effective way to improve urban network coverage.
As 5G rolls out in earnest, small cells will play a much bigger role in urban networks than they have done so far for 4G coverage. With many more cell sites required across UK cities, planners and operators need to be looking at ways to install small cells in street furniture, along motorways and in other public areas. But this needs proactive legislation, updated regulations, and either less or far more efficient processes for approvals.
Ultimately, the most important change required by government in the UK’s race towards 5G will be allowing the ECC to be much more flexible. This in turn would enable private technology companies to have a say in setting the agenda, rather than having to work around preventative measures. Operators will require more freedom to take quicker yet prudent steps over the next five years in order to comprehensively roll out 5G and maintain 4G networks across the country. This means that legislative and regulatory action needs to be taken sooner rather than later to ensure that government is playing its part in this major transition.