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Mobile firms urge more local action on 5G

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Mobile phone companies are urging councils to step up their efforts to support the rollout of 5G, after research found almost 90% had not considered whether their assets could host the required infrastructure.

A report from Mobile UK, which represents EE, 02, Three and Vodafone, said councils’ planning and economic development functions made them essential to the timely rollout of 5G but too few councils are according it the same priority as broadband infrastructure.

The body is calling for a more standardised approach to planning across the country, including the expansion of permitted development rights to cover all telecommunications equipment.

It also urged councils to consider mobile connectivity in their local plans and to appoint a digital champion to provide a single point of contact for firms seeking to install 5G infrastructure and co-ordinate competing interests within the council.

Gareth Elliott, head of policy and communications for Mobile UK, told LGC 5G would increase the capacity of mobile networks dramatically, allowing 10 times as many devices to connect to a network at any one time. He said this would require new infrastructure which could mean bigger and bulkier equipment.

The mobile phone companies are keen to use public assets to host this infrastructure. However, there have been disputes between some operators and councils over what is a fair price for such an arrangement. EE took Islington LBC to court earlier this year while lawyers have described mobile operators’ approach as “aggressive”.

Mr Elliott urged councils to consider the benefits to their communities of increased connectivity, as well as the opportunities for improved efficiencies, and said the industry was “still in the early stages of understanding how we are going to monetise 5G”.

He added: “There needs to be a balance between the revenue generated [by councils] and the economic good.”

Theo Blackwell, chief digital officer at the Greater London Authority, told LGC the revisions to the Electronic Communications Code in 2017, which sets out expectations around the hosting of 5G infrastructure, had not been developed with local authorities.

“Nobody wants a situation where a social good such as connectivity ends up in a litigious environment but this is a much more complex environment that saying local authorities don’t have the plans,” he said.

“It’s true [councils] need to raise their game but there just seems to have been an assumption that it’s for local government to provide the climate for investment in connectivity, without the active involvement of the local government community.”

Mobile UK’s research looked at a sample of 70 councils. It found 87% had not audited their buildings and assets, more than half did not have a councillor with responsibility for digital issues and only 28% of local plans made reference to mobile connectivity.

Mr Elliott said where digital was referenced in local plans it was mostly in connection with fixed broadband.

He said digital champions, whether officer or councillor, were required to provide a “point of contact that we know who we can engage with” so firms did not have to go through the “planning department, the environment department strategy ad finance departments” individually.

“The government has ambitions to [roll out 5G] rapidly, we want to be a world leader in 5G. To do that we are going to need to do things with as much certainty and as quickly as possible.”

Do you have experience of working with mobile phone operators on 5G rollout? Email sarah.calkin@emap.com in confidence or call 0203 953 279.

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