The trade association for mobile operators, Mobile UK, has warned that many councils currently adopt an “inconsistent” approach to improving mobile connectivity and fixed line broadband is often given a higher priority. Instead the group wants local authorities to take the future roll-out of ultrafast 5G networks more seriously.
At present O2, Three UK, EE and Vodafone are all expected to tentatively start the commercial roll-out of their future 5G mobile networks during the latter half of 2019, although their primary national deployments may have to wait until 2020, which is when Ofcom hope to release more of the necessary radio spectrum bands (assuming squabbling between operators doesn’t delay it).
However Mobile UK’s report – Councils & Connectivity 2 – warns that 87% of councils surveyed (reflecting a sample of 60 randomly selected councils with varying degrees of urban/rural geography) have not yet audited their assets for suitability to host digital infrastructure. Meanwhile 56% lacked a cabinet member with specific responsibility for digital issues and 74% had yet to apply for funding to improve local digital connectivity.
Worse still, only 28% of Local Plans make a “detailed” reference to mobile connectivity and councils often overlook this while still adopting a “heavy focus” toward broadband. Instead the Mobile UK report calls for “equal prioritisation” of mobile with fixed broadband by local authorities.
All of this is despite the fact that 94% of UK adults own a mobile phone and there are 92 million subscriptions to such networks. The GSMA has also previously estimated that the impact of mobile on UK GDP could be £112bn in 2020, rising to between £164-198bn per annum by 2030. But the report notes that only 10% of council economic strategies give a clear view of how important mobile is to future economic outcomes.
Gareth Elliot, Head of Policy and Comms for Mobile UK, said:
“Mobile connectivity has transformed our daily lives, and 5G is expected to take us even further, but we must ensure that at all levels of government we are equally prepared.
Councils have a vital role, yet while many are working towards a connected future, our research has found that there is still a lag in fully prioritising mobile connectivity.
With launch plans announced for 5G, now is the time to take the opportunity to work with industry to break down barriers and champion mobile connectivity, to ensure the next generation of mobile infrastructure is deployed quickly and effectively.”
Naturally Mobile UK is hoping their report will encourage councils to work in partnership with the industry to help “provide the certainty needed to assist mobile operators to rollout networks” and they’ve produced a series of recommendations to help shape that engagement. In theory they believe this could help MNOs to build next generation networks “quickly, effectively and in a manner that is economically viable.”
Mobile UK’s Key Recommendations
1. Put greater emphasis on the importance of mobile connectivity to the future success of local economies. This can be supported by the following actions:
• Auditing public sector assets as potential locations for mobile infrastructure.
Using public buildings, structures and open land to install mobile infrastructure has supported widespread improvements to connectivity. The charge for use of these assets should be set on the basis set out in the Electronic Communications Code, and not at rates that disincentivise investment.
• Learning lessons from the rollout of broadband.
There are numerous examples – such as Connecting Devon and Somerset and Connecting Cambridgeshire – of how concerted effort has improved broadband provision in local areas.
• Exploring different models of collaboration with the mobile industry.
Examples of current partnerships include regular catch-up meetings and round-tables, which support a collaborative approach between the mobile industry and local political and business leaders.
2. Publish a clear statement of approach to create a positive environment to build mobile infrastructure. This can be supported by the following actions:
• Embedding mobile connectivity in plans for local economic development.
The development of mobile infrastructure should be included in Local Plans and all other types of local economic strategy.
• Establishing “connectivity considerations” as best practice in the planning phase of new developments.
Any development – from upgrades to the road network to new housing estates – should consider connectivity requirements prior to construction beginning, not after construction is complete.
• Creating local government ‘digital champions’.
This could be a Local Authority cabinet post or committee focussed on mobile connectivity, a senior role dedicated to making better use of mobile/digital technology (such as a Chief Digital Officer) or a council officer with responsibility to improve mobile connectivity. Digital champions provide a single point of contact and responsibility for mobile connectivity and will also be in a unique position to align competing interests within a local authority such as economic development, property, planning and politics.
One of the biggest difficulties that councils will face in all this is that their local constituents don’t always approve of new mobile infrastructure being deployed, particularly if it spoils a beauty spot or lowers the value of their homes. Ironically some of the same people often complain about poor signals.
On this subject the proposal for a simplification of planning effectively means a step down of all telecommunications equipment into “permitted development” (PD), which would provide certainty in terms of time to a decision and does not fully remove a local authorities right to object via the ‘with approval‘ process. However this is a much softer approach, which might work for smaller infrastructure but making big masts PD could be a tough sell. Naturally nobody wants to be voted out of office and thus there’s a difficult balancing act to be achieved.
Nevertheless the nature of 5G means that it only works at its best with a much denser local network and to deliver that may indeed require more cooperation from councils, which could help with preparatory work in terms of things like organising site availability, power, fibre access and forward planning.