BT is calling for an end to exclusive concessions agreements governing access to council-owned street furniture, in a bid to speed up the delivery of 4G and 5G services and boost mobile coverage in city centres.
Many local authorities currently operate a concessions model which grant a single mobile operator or infrastructure provider exclusive access to council-owned street furniture such as lamp posts and CCTV columns to locate mobile network equipment. These mini mobile masts or ‘small cells’ are essential for bringing enhanced mobile coverage and capacity to residents and businesses in urban centres. Over time, they are expected to play a role in accelerating the widespread deployment of 5G services.
BT will be holding a workshop with local authorities and mobile network operators in April to explain the benefits of the open access approach and discuss the options for how this model might work in practice.
The event will be hosted in Birmingham by the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) and Mobile UK. WMCA was recently selected to build the UK’s first region-wide 5G test bed, the West Midlands Urban Connected Communities 5G Project (UCC). The UCC has been initiated and jointly funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
Under the concessions model, other mobile operators who wish to access the same physical infrastructure to locate their small cells equipment need to pay a wholesale charge to the provider that has an exclusive agreement in place with the local authority. This can drive up costs for operators and stymie investment, while BT believes that changes to the Electronic Communications Code – which came into force in December 2017 – make such exclusivity agreements void.
In response, BT, which currently operates street furniture concessions across nine local authorities (Glasgow, Cardiff, Brighton, Plymouth, Carlisle, Newcastle/Gateshead, Nottingham, Gloucester and Leicester) is proposing to end its exclusive agreements to encourage other local authorities and the wider industry to adopt an alternative ‘open access’ model. Such an approach would allow all mobile operators to access street furniture on an open, equivalent basis, by paying a low-cost flat fee to the local authority.
BT believes that removing the current barriers to using street furniture will encourage mobile operators to invest in improving mobile coverage, capacity and speeds in towns and cities across the UK. This will bring greater and more reliable connectivity, increased competition and lower prices to local residents and businesses, and could potentially speed up the delivery of 5G services in these areas by encouraging greater deployment of small cells technology.
Paul Ceely, Director of Network Strategy, BT Group, said: “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. 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.
“The UK needs an alternative approach which sees industry and local authorities working together to share these street sites in an open and collaborative way. This will create the right environment for long-term investment and innovation in future mobile networks. We believe Open Access will be critical in ensuring the UK has the best mobile infrastructure in place to maintain its position as one of the world’s leading digital economies.”
The initiative has been welcomed by Henry Kippin, Director of Public Service Reform at the WMCA, which will be responsible for delivering the 5G test bed programme: “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,” he said.
“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. We are looking forward to welcoming authorities from across the UK and all the mobile operators who will come together and set out a new way of working together.”
BT’s mobile arm, EE, has already revealed the first 16 cities to benefit from the launch of 5G services later this year. London, Cardiff, Belfast, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Manchester will be the first flagship cities for 5G deployment this year, with parts of Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol also set to benefit.