Telcos are implementing ECC powers unfairly – Ulster Farmers Union

The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) has suggested telcos are unfairly implementing entitled powers through the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) to drive down land rental costs.

Friction between landowners and telecommunications companies is nothing new, but this is one of the first condemning public statements made by an association. The comments from the UFU are a sharp swing from the previous rhetoric, where the telcos complained of ‘ransom rents’ and the balance of power being too much in favour of landowners.

“While we expect current agreements to be honoured, what is happening stems directly from the Code,” said Victor Chestnutt, Deputy President of the UFU. “This is rooted in significantly reducing rent and compensation payments.”

Introduced as part of the Digital Economy Act of 2017, certain parts of the ECC were intended to address the dynamic between landowners and telcos. Telcos have traditionally leased land off various different parties, including famers, to house communications infrastructure to improve mobile coverage across the country.

The original complaints, from the telcos, date back years. The suggestion is that as there were few alternatives once a mast had been constructed and mobile equipment has been placed on the passive structure, landowners were using this position of power to drive up rental agreements and compensation. The telcos have always felt they were paying too much, and landlords were taking advantage of upgrade to renegotiate leases to further compound the misery.

The ECC was intended to offer greater protections to the telcos, creating a mechanism to dictate what is deemed fair and reasonable leasing terms and compensation, as well as grant greater access to land. However, the UFU is suggesting the telcos are using the fine print to drive down costs to an unfair and unreasonable level.

“Current agreements will be honoured but taking advise after may be a prudent course of action,” said Chestnutt.

What should be noted is that this is an on-going and long-term conflict between the two parties. A lot rests on the shoulders of the telcos and due to the vast expense of deploying mobile networks, they are perfectly within their right to attempt to reduce costs. This would be to the benefit of society and the economy on the whole, as it would accelerate the continued rollout of 4G and introduction of 5G, but the question which needs to be addressed is whether the ECC over-compensates for years of an unbalanced relationship.

The ECC was supposed to balance the equation, but whether this is the case remains to be seen.

Although it has been more than two years since the ECC was written into law, these issues are only emerging now. As Chestnutt highlights above, the telcos are legally obliged to honour existing agreements, though as these expire, farmers could be left in precarious positions, with the telcos using the ECC to drastically reduce compensation.

That said, this strategy could backfire and inhibit the digital dream which is enthralling the country today.

Michael Watson, a partner at law firm Shulmans, has told Telecoms.com that the drastic reduction in compensation could lead to a landowner revolt. If the financials do not match up to the hassle of housing telecoms equipment, landowners will seek ways and means to make sure the environment is unsuitable.

Farmers could relocate a pig pen to demonstrate there is a commercial use for the land, undermining the telcos case using the ECC, while building owners in urban environments could elect to house solar panels on the roof as an alternative.

As Watson highlights, this is a relationship between two parties, both of which need to benefit. People are very protective over their property, therefore if it is felt the telcos are abusing this dynamic, means to make the property unsuitable for telecoms equipment will be sought.

A good relationship is one where both parties benefit, however, there is a risk landowners could feel snubbed by this new dynamic.

But what could be the negative consequences?

Number of mobile masts in UK (Ofcom estimates)
2018 41,500
2017 42,500
2016 43,500

While there certainly is consolidation in tower assets thanks to joint-ventures between the telcos, it is perhaps concerning the number of mobile masts is decreasing year-on-year across the UK. At a time where coverage demands are increasing and higher frequency spectrum is being implemented, most would want this trend to be reversed.

However, if the risk of landowners snubbing telco leasing agreements becomes a material reality, this will be difficult.

What is worth considering is that the ECC grants the telcos considerable legal powers. If a dispute arises, the telco now has the power to take the landowner to court in an attempt to force through the lower compensation, but this presents its own risk.

The Lands Chamber of the Upper Tribunal is the only court room in the UK which is currently in a position to hear such disputes. This creates a niche in the legal system which will likely lead to more consistency in rulings, however there is also a risk of a legal bottleneck.

Legal complaints take time to resolve, and should enough disputes emerge, it won’t be long before a queue emerges at The Lands Chamber. Just at a time where the UK needs clarity and simplicity to rapidly rollout next-generation infrastructure, a very real bureaucratic risk is present.

Although this paints a worrying picture, what is worth noting is that both the telcos and the landowners will want to hype this situation in favour of their own objectives. The telcos made the ransom rent landscape seem almost apocalyptic at time, driving the lobby machine into overdrive, though the same could be said for the associations representing the landowners. Suggesting billion-pound corporations are abusing struggling farmers is certainly one way to attract headlines to the cause, but it always worth remembering this is a lobbyist mission.

Ultimately, more uncertainty and the risk of delays is the last thing anyone in the UK connectivity landscape wants.

BT/EE, Vodafone, Three and O2 were all approached for comment, with no response at the time of writing.

Virgin Media takes local council to court over ‘hefty’ access charges

Virgin Media has said it will be putting new clauses in the updated Electronic Communications Code (ECC) to the test as it takes Durham County Council to court over land access difficulties.

The disagreement between Virgin Media and Durham County Council surrounds the decision to expand the telco’s fibre network to 16,000 properties by the end of 2019. While there was support in the early stages of the project, the council is charging what Virgin Media describes as a ‘hefty’ per-metre levy, despite BT and other utility providers already having their pipes and cables installed in grass verges the Highways Department in Durham recommended as the build option to minimise disruption.

“We are disappointed to be taking this action against a Council with whom we initially had a good working relationship,” said Tom Mockridge, CEO of Virgin Media. “By demanding money for land access Durham County Council is now putting up a broadband blockade to thousands of homes and businesses across the county.

“This issue goes wider than the city of Durham. Haggling over land access when we build in a new area slows down broadband rollout and deters investment. It is also an impediment to Government and Ofcom’s ambition for increased fibre rollout and network competition to BT. It’s time rhetoric was put into action to truly break down the barriers to building broadband.”

The issue which is being corrected in the updated ECC is that of ransom rents, a plague to the telecoms industry. As a substantial number of fixed and mobile assets have to be built and maintained on privately owned land, complicated leasing documents are needed. As most of the landowners realise they are in the position of power, telcos are overcharged for access, both to build the asset in the first place, and each time maintenance needs to be carried out. It is an expensive aspect of the business for telcos.

Another worrying trend which was pointed out to us by EE a couple of weeks back is the renegotiation of terms. As most of the leases contain a list of assets on the rented ground, upgrades mean a renegotiation of the terms as introducing new equipment alters the agreement, which gives the landowner the opportunity to charge more as the telco is left with little or no choice. EE is trying to set precedent against this trend with its own lawsuit, but the ECC is supposed to be addressing this unreasonable balance of power.

The main issue is telcos are not currently viewed as a utility and therefore do not have the same rights to access. Due to the critical importance of utilities such as water, gas and electricity, engineers are able to access assets without consent from landowners and do not have to worry about being overcharged in leasing agreements. Telcos want the same access rights as the utilities, but do not want to be regulated as utilities, which is one of the causes of the whole issue. The telcos are not willing to make the necessarily regulatory concessions to ensure the government can protect their interests and offer them more freedoms for the rollout of future-proof infrastructure.

The root cause of this problem is one we are familiar with; rigid and inflexible telcos, stubbornly targeting a protectionist set-up with the government without giving anything in return. Landowners should not be able to hold telcos to ransom, but some concessions will have to be made to ensure progress towards the digital dream can be made.

Europe gets closer to 5G spectrum harmonization

The Electronic Communications Committee has approved a set of recommendations to harmonize the 3.4-3.8 GHz and 26 GHz bands for 5G.

As is generally the way with European bureaucracies, the ECC is just one component of a broader organizational Russian doll. It appears to be a subset of the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT) and it is the latter’s proposals that the ECC is happy to have rubber-stamped and handed on to the next link in the chain for further rubber-stamping.

Harmonization, by definition, is a laborious process, requiring the choreographed approval of a bunch of different stakeholders and administrators. The danger of requiring such broad consensus before doing anything is that it can take ages to get anything done and that glacial progress can become so culturally engrained that it becomes very difficult to speed things up when needed.

The hope is that this won’t be the case with 5G, on which Europe is already behind the US and the Far East, and that some bits of the European super-tanker will find a way of moving faster than the rest. Maybe the ECC/CEPT is just such a group, but that remains to be seen, and everything presumably needs sign-off from the European Commission eventually anyway.

“ECC is pleased to support the industry providing the 5G leadership to deliver an accelerated roll-out of 5G to consumers in Europe,” said Eric Fournier, Chairman of the ECC. “ECC is committed to finally adopting the 5G spectrum regulation for the frequency bands 3400-3800 MHz and 26 GHz at its next meeting in July 2018.”

A browse through some of the supporting material offers a glimpse of the Byzantine complexity of getting things done on a pan-European level. Below we’ve copied the latest CEPT roadmap for 5G, for you to enjoy at your leisure.

List of actions (Approved 18 November 2016, Revised 17 November 2017) Related ECC activity (Updated  2 March 2018)
  1. Harmonisation
A.1 Review as a matter of urgency the suitability of 3.4-3.8 GHz ECC decision for 5G Ongoing work within ECC/PT1 (WI PT1_SWG_C_20): revision of ECC/DEC/(11)06 under development for Public Consultation in June 2018.

Related work in response to EC Mandate on 5G: Draft CEPT Report 67 approved by ECC#47 for public consultation.

A.2 Provide guidance to administrations for defragmenting the 3.4-3.8 GHz band, in which there are existing licences in many CEPT countries and for developing plans and intended timescale for the future utilization of this band. Draft ECC Reports under development:

  • WI PT1_02 on defragmentation of the frequency band 3400-3800 MHz;
  • WI PT1_17 on options for synchronization between MFCN
A.3.1 Develop an harmonisation decision setting the conditions for the introduction of 5G in the 26 GHz band, taking into account, as appropriate, the compatibility and protection with all existing services in the same and adjacent frequency bands, in particular the protection of current and future EESS/SRS earth stations should be addressed at the European level. Ongoing work within ECC/PT1 (WI PT1_01): Draft ECC Decision (18)FF approved by ECC#47 for public consultation.

Complementary work to facilitate introduction of 5G while ensuring the use of EESS/SRS (WI PT1_15) and FSS earth stations (WI PT1_16).

Related work in response to EC Mandate on 5G: Draft CEPT Report 68 approved by ECC#47 for public consultation.

A.3.2 Develop a tool box to help the national decision process supporting introduction of 5G in 26 GHz with FS in operation providing mechanisms which allow for continued FS operation, where necessary.

 

To be considered and developed by ECC PT1 to support to introduction 5G in 26 GHz according to harmonised technical conditions (ECC Decision 26 GHz)
A.4 Review ECC decisions in MFCN bands to ensure they are suitable for 5G
  • 3.4-3.8 GHz: See A.1.
  • 700 MHz, 800 MHz and 1.5 GHz ECC Decisions are already suitable for 5G (technology neutral and no AAS assumed in these frequency bands).
  • 2.1 GHz: WI PT1_12 to review ECC Decision (06)01.
  • 2.6 GHz: WI PT1_13 to review ECC Decision (05)05.
  • 1800 (and 900 MHz): WI PT1_14 to review ECC Decision (06)13
  • Further considerations expected from ECC/PT1 for2.3GHz.
A.5 Consider the impact of future “flexible duplex” on the management of existing FDD bands ECC/PT1 to consider this issue which is not expected to arise in the short term.
  1. WRC-19 (IMT>24 GHz)
B.1 Signal clearly that CEPT supports an IMT Identification in the 24.25 – 27.5 GHz band and intends to harmonise this band in Europe for 5G before WRC-19 through the adoption of an harmonisation decision and to promote it for worldwide harmonisation
  • CPG and PT1 activities on WRC-19 AI1.13
  • Reflected in draft CEPT Brief on AI 1.13
  • Articles in the ECC newsletters (see here.)
B.2 Signal clearly that, in addition to the 26 GHz band (see B.1), CEPT considers that the bands 40.5-43.5 GHz and 66-71 GHz have good potential for future harmonisation in Europe. The process for developing harmonisation decisions for the additional bands may be launched immediately after WRC-19.
  • CPG and PT1 activities on WRC-19 AI1.13.
  • Reflected in draft CEPT Brief on AI 1.13.

Note the band overlap with AI 1.6 (NGSO FSS) and 1.14 (HAPS)).

  • The CEPT priorities for the studies may be updated depending on the CEPT positions established by CPG on each frequency bands listed in Resolution 238 (WRC-15).
B.3 Signal clearly that Europe has harmonised the 27.5-29.5 GHz band for broadband satellite and is supportive of the worldwide use of this band for ESIM. This band is therefore not available for 5G.
  • CPG activities
  • Reflected in draft CEPT Brief on AI 1.5 and on 1.13
  • Articles in the ECC newsletters (see here and also here in relation to ESIM.)
B.4 Engage in discussions with other regional organisations to facilitate consensus at WRC-19 CPG activities
B.5 Encourage mobile industry to express consolidated views on their global spectrum needs
B.6 Contribute to ITU-R to consider 5G characteristics  so as to enable sharing studies to be carried out in time for WRC-19
  1. Verticals
C.1 Monitor common use cases for functional requirement of verticals (e.g. PPDR, industrial automation, automotive, utilities, rails, …) which would require spectrum harmonisation measures To be taken into account by WGFM through monitoring of relevant standardisation activities (e.g. ETSI, 3GPP).
C.2 Consider how 5G standardisation will accommodate the verticals specific requirements To be taken into account by ECC/PT1 and WGFM.
C.3 Investigate the possibility for verticals to share common platforms (e.g., a shared private network or hosted on a mobile operator network) To be considered by WGFM in its existing activities relating to verticals, e.g. for rail (FM 56).

Preliminary discussions in ECC/PT1 relating connectivity by means of MFCN in the band 3.4-3.8 GHz (e.g. for connected cars), in response to the 5G Mandate.

 

C.4 Investigate the impact of the use of licensed-exempt regime for critical applications of verticals (e.g. automotive), WG FM to investigate the matter.
C.5 Consider the need for spectrum redundancy for mission critical application (e.g. automotive below 6 GHz) WGFM to consider responding to potential SRDoc when developed by ETSI.
C.6 Review spectrum regulations applicable to verticals to assess whether these are “5G compatible” To be considered by ECC/PT1 and WGFM, taking into account the list of harmonisation decisions (and recommendations) for review .
  1. Other spectrum challenges
D.1 Take into consideration what satellite solutions can bring for 5G Ongoing activities in FM44 (work item FM44_32): draft ECC Report 280 on satellite solutions for 5G approved by ECC#47 for public consultation.
D.2 Investigate new sharing opportunities and challenges that new technologies (e.g. MIMO) can bring. ECC/PT1 to report on this matter, taking into account its work on 24.25-27.5 GHz and 3.4-3.8 GHz
D.3 Carry out activities on FS channelling in 92-105 GHz band and 130-175 GHz band Related WIs SE19_37 and SE19_38 on guidelines on deployment of FS. Draft ECC Recommendation (18)01 on 130-175 GHz approved by WGSE for public consultation in February 2018.
D.4 Review the conditions applicable to the band 57-66 GHz in order to ensure less restrictive, flexible and streamlined regulations for backhauling as well as for SRDs (WiGig), also taking into account ITS in this frequency range. Related WIs SRD-MG_44 and SE19_39 on the evaluation of proposals for a relaxed regulation for wideband data transmission systems in all or parts of 57-66 GHz.
D.5 Investigate the impact of the use of spectrum for 5G in higher frequency bands (>24 GHz) in relation with  general authorization regime, To be considered by ECC/PT1 in its studies for 26 GHz harmonisation and for future activities as appropriate.