UK MNOs have another stab at reforming the Electronic Communications Code

The Electronic Communications Code (ECC) is supposed to simplify bureaucracy in the telecoms industry, but lawmakers didn’t get it right the first (or second) time around.

The issue with regulation and legislation is that there is rarely a fresh start made. Rules are often built on top of existing direction which is slightly out of date. This is a quicker way to drive industry forward, but when layers are built upon layers which are already built upon layers, the foundations start to look very dated.

This is the state of regulation and legislation in numerous markets around the world, the UK included in this broad assumption. For example, most rules are based on the Communications Act 2003, though you only have to look at how much the world has changed over the last two decades to understand why this is not a favourable position.

The UK telecoms industry has today launched a fresh assault on the red-tape maze in an attempt to simplify and expedite the process of deploying network infrastructure equipment. The ‘Speed Up Britain’ campaign has been launched by Cellnex, Cornerstone, MBNL, and Mobile UK, while being chaired by Ed Vaizey, the former Minister for the Digital Economy between 2014 and 2016.

“These past months have shown how reliant we are on mobile connectivity to conduct business and stay in touch,” Vaizey said

“When the Code was introduced back in 2017, it was supposed to make the process of building and upgrading mobile infrastructure easier, not harder. And yet, three years later, progress has been glacial. Industry does continue to work closely with the landowners who host mobile masts, but progress in the rollout of this critical national infrastructure is being hampered and delayed by legal inconsistencies and lengthy legal proceedings.”

The issue at the heart of this campaign is bureaucratic complications and legacy rules. In the revamped rules, the introduction of the ECC in 2017, the telecoms operators were supposed to have more control over the negotiations with landowners. It was supposed to address nuances such as access to sites and premiums placed on leases when new equipment was introduced.

There was a risk that too much control was handed to the telcos as the balance of power was addressed, but what has actually emerged is somewhat of bottleneck. Some landowners have resisted the new rules, suggesting the telecoms operators are using the ECC to unfairly slash the cost of rental agreements. There might be some truth to this, however the unintended consequence of this tension has been stagnation in some cases.

The most obvious example of this is the bottleneck at the Land Tribunal. This is a court which was set up to oversee disputes between the telecoms operators and the landowners, however, as there is limited resource available a bottleneck has appeared at this court, with some cases to be heard in months or even years should the right legal hurdles be presented. This will result in delays.

In reality, it is most likely that no party is innocent. The telecoms operators probably attempted to over reduce costs associated with the landowners, while the landowners wanted to continue to incubate the golden egg.

This campaign from the telecoms industry is designed to tackle the bureaucratic complications. It is hoped more steps can be introduced to ensure expensive and time-consuming court case can be avoided, while loopholes to prevent the deployment of network infrastructure equipment will get attention from the campaign.

The ‘Speed Up Britain’ campaign is an attempt from the UK telecoms industry to remove the grey areas, an effort to build on the ECC and grease the wheels of progress, a validated quest to cut down red-tape to simplify the process of deploying 4G and 5G networks, as well as the backhaul infrastructure.

During the COVID-19 lockdown period it was plainly obvious to society how important communications networks are to society and the economy. One would hope the message has been received by the relevant authorities and steps are taken to improve the process. This does not mean the telecoms industry should be given a war chest to bully landowners and local councils, but it means a fairer system, with less bureaucratic hurdles is envisioned.

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