“5G or not 5G” for UK PLC
STOP! Pause… just for a moment…
As the UK locks down for a second time this year, let’s acknowledge again just how important connectivity is and… boy, do we take it for granted!
I’ve said it before but without connectivity our essential services and businesses could not have continued to operate during the pandemic. The ability to work from home would have been impossible. Virtual classrooms, medical appointments and property viewings could not have happened. Online shopping, banking and the ability to keep in touch with family and friends during a time when constraints are placed on our freedom would all have been impossible. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I remain amazed by how adaptable, imaginative and resilient we have all been when faced with what has been a difficult and arduous global crisis but, at the heart of it all, and what has kept us going, is connectivity.
How much though, do we really acknowledge and appreciate that? Has anyone ever stopped to think how connectivity is even possible or how and who is responsible for the delivery of next-generation mobile technology or gigabit capable broadband? Well…I have and I think the answer is all of us which begs the question, why has the telecoms market stagnated and been stagnant for a number of years now.
The market’s current problems stem from the reforms made to the Electronic Communications Code (the “Code”) at the end of 2017. The Code regulates the relationship between network operators (e.g. EE, Vodafone etc.) and landowners who host communications equipment on their land. The reforms were intended to make it quicker, easier and cheaper for network operators to build, upgrade and share telecom sites, in recognition of the fact that digital communication is now a basic need, or a fourth utility, that should be accessible to all. Sounds good in theory doesn’t it but, in practice, it’s a different story.
The reforms appear to have only served to frustrate the market and its digital growth, with various elements of the Code becoming the subject of lengthy and costly legal proceedings, some of which have resulted in decisions that further stall and in some cases, completely prevent, a network operator’s ability to provide us with, or improve, our digital experience – that one thing that has kept us connected and enabled so many of us to keep going through the pandemic.
So what’s the solution? That’s certainly a million dollar question at the moment for those who work in the telecoms sector but is it as difficult as we think?
Those landowners who host communications equipment on their land are a major stakeholder in the provision of connectivity. Without them, the network operators are ‘up a gum tree’. Those landowners who host communications equipment on their land are also the consumers of digital communication – they are you, me, the farmer at the end of the village, the landlord of a tenanted block of flats in the town centre. Without the network and other operators, how can we continue to run and grow our businesses, shop online, bank online, stay in touch with family and friends when prevented from visiting them? The answer is there can’t be one without the other.
The network and other operators fulfil an important role and aspire to deliver the Government’s ambition to roll-out 5G in the next 5 years and put an end to network poverty for those who live or work in rural areas with either poor or no mobile coverage. The benefits that these ambitions will bring to us, as consumers, are priceless. For some it will be the ability to experience the full effect of connectivity without spending a huge amount of time tediously watching the buffer circle (you know the one!) going round and round and round. For others, it will bring unprecedented network speeds and connectivity that can make things such as autonomous cars a reality. It will innovate our healthcare system making remote surgery, connected ambulances and rehabilitation robots part of our everyday lives. For the gamers amongst us, virtual headsets and other gaming experiences will benefit from 5G connectivity making a game’s characters and worlds feel more real. The list is endless.
The landowners also fulfil an important role and it must be remembered, and respected, that their primary business is not telecoms. The Code is proving to be a navigational minefield for those who work in the sector so for the consumer, or layperson, it may just as well be ‘gobbledygook’ hence perhaps the reluctance (along with other factors) to fully engage and commit to negotiations with network operators. The preference is one of ‘wait and see’ and ‘let the dust settle’ on the Code reforms, particularly given the number of ambiguities in the Code and in the wake of those matters referred to the court for determination. Understandably, the landowners also need to retain an element of control over use of their land and those who access it. One of their main objectives will be to avoid prejudicing their primary business and use and enjoyment of their land but also, to avoid the additional (and often) unwanted management and insurance and other obligations that come with a loss of control.
So…is this professional relationship, the one between network operator and landowner, not the same as any other? No one ever says that relationships are easy and we all know that they are something to be worked at. To flourish, they also need the three ‘C’s – communication, commitment and compromise. If all slates were wiped clean and the three ‘C’s deployed, might we see some recovery and growth in the telecoms sector?
I think it goes without saying that we all know the importance of the digital economy, more so now than ever. I think it also goes without saying that the future of the digital economy is exciting and the benefits it can bring have the potential to be life changing.
Perhaps therefore, with a new year around the corner and the opportunity for new beginnings, all major stakeholders in the telecoms sector can resolve to re-evaluate their role and how their requirements are communicated to each other. They can listen with an open mind and a willingness to compromise and then commit to those compromises in good faith. There is most definitely an aggregate responsibility particularly when you consider that 5G technology alone is worth £198bn to the UK economy - a much needed injection of investment. “5G or not 5G” for UK Plc is a question that I hope we will not have to ask ourselves and before too long, all major stakeholders will adopt a joint approach and find a mutually acceptable way forward for the telecoms sector and crucially for essential connectivity.
Get in touch
For more information on this update, please contact Legal Director, Victoria Dobson.