BT pleads for open access to street furniture

BT is attempting to rally the industry in an attempt to convince local authorities to ditch the current exclusive concessions model in UK cities in favour of an ‘Open Access Model’.

As it stands, many local authorities operate a concessions model which grant a single player exclusive access to council-owned street furniture, such as lamp posts, to place mobile network equipment. This might seem attractive to the councils from a revenue perspective, but BT is arguing this will be to the detriment of the digital economy in the long-run.

“While the concessions model made sense in the early 2010’s when it first came into common use, the market and regulatory landscape have changed, and it’s become clear that exclusivity agreements act as a barrier to further 4G and 5G investments,” said Paul Ceely, Director of Network Strategy for BT.

“Government initiatives such as the DCMS Barrier Busting taskforce are showing the way, but we believe that industry needs to act. We are leading the way by handing back exclusivity in nine key areas.”

BT currently operates nine exclusive concessions (Glasgow, Cardiff, Brighton, Plymouth, Carlisle, Newcastle/Gateshead, Nottingham, Gloucester and Leicester) and is proposing to end these contracts should the result be an open access environment. The new model would grant all mobile operators and infrastructure companies access to street furniture, paying the local authorities a flat, consistent rate.

Although it is not a new gripe, the bureaucratic and regulatory environment across the UK has once again been blamed for connectivity problems. Almost all the operators have had a moan at the red-tape wrapped regulatory landscape at one point or another, but an open access model would appear to be a sensible step forward to encourage improved mobile coverage and experience.

However, what should be worth noting is there are authorities who have made progress in this area without prompts from industry.

“One of the reasons why the West Midlands was chosen as the location for the UK’s first region-wide 5G test bed was our commitment as a region to do what it takes to work with operators to get the 5G networks we need built in the fastest, fairest and most cost effective way,” said Henry Kippin, Director of Public Service Reform at the West Midlands Combined Authority.

“The timing and spirit of this Open Access initiative is ideal as we will make faster progress through operators and public services working together to a shared agenda so that 5G can fulfil its full potential in driving economic growth that can benefit all our diverse communities.”

While some small-minded public servants might point to the lost revenue when ending the exclusive concessions, you have to look at the long-term benefits. The West Midlands is now home to numerous 5G test beds, R&D facilities and is home to hubs of excellence for emerging technologies.

Whether the local authorities pay attention to logic is an entirely different matter, but any suggestions to decrease the red-tape complications of UK bureaucracy should be welcomed by all.

UK operators want local authorities to be more helpful on infrastructure

Mobile UK has very courteously pointed the finger at local authorities as a bottle-neck in the rollout of infrastructure which will fuel the digital economy.

In a new report, released as part of the ‘Building Mobile Britain’ campaign, the lobby group representing EE, Three, Vodafone and O2 has suggested local authorities should be doing more. The lobbyist does not go as far as to criticise the authorities, but a patronising checklist at the end of the report prods the town-hall dwelling public servants in the right direction.

“Building Mobile Britain relies on strong partnerships and local Government has a vital role to play in delivering this goal,” said Gareth Elliott, Head of Policy and Communications at Mobile UK. “Our report, Councils and Connectivity, outlines how proactive local government leadership, planning and the sharing of ideas can enable and unlock opportunities to achieving a world-class connected economy.”

We are not surprised the under-funded and under-staffed local authorities could be considered as a hurdle by the telco industry. In the world of local politics everything is critically important and nothing gets enough attention, though there are a few valid points made.

Firstly, taking a proactive approach. This is the first suggestion by the lobbyists, creating a senior management position or committee which oversees how mobile is being addressed in the authority. This position or committee would be responsible for ensuring the foundations for connectivity are built into all other activities at the authority. This should be viewed as a critical component of local government as the benefits of the digital economy need to be appreciated at every level of bureaucracy in the UK.

There are of course examples of authorities who are embracing the digital revolution, Peterborough or Milton Keynes are two excellent examples, though the mediocrity or sluggishness of other councils will only create another digital divide across the UK. The creation of champions internally will facilitate a proactive approach to connectivity.

This also ties into the second point; planning for the long-term. Embedding mobile plans into local economic development initiatives should be seen as a basic requirement nowadays, and there are plenty of lessons to be learnt from the broadband rollout over the last few years according to Mobile UK.

The final point is about collaboration. The mobile industry is not the enemy, and while this report is perhaps a shallow attempt to cover up the capitalist ambitions of the telcos, the end result should not be undervalued. People want mobile connectivity as it is a critical component of almost every aspect of our lives from communication to entertainment and daily functions such as banking. The mobile industry might be pushing for change to generate profits, but the reasoning is irrelevant when the citizens want exactly the same end result; greater coverage.

The point of the report seems to be a passive-aggressive nudge to the local authorities, and we tend to agree. Mobile connectivity is a relatively new topic for Local Authorities to consider, and experience suggests these bodies are not the quickest off the mark. That said, it is a critical component of our lives, businesses, public services and the future economy. If Local Authorities are not taking a proactive approach, like Peterborough or Milton Keynes, a new digital divide will be created.