Government cans the Mobile Infrastructure Project

The government will not extend the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) despite falling short of its’ goal to increase 3G and 4G coverage in rural areas, writes Richard Lilley, surveyor at Cell:cm Chartered Surveyors.

The £150m UK Government initiative aimed at boosting mobile coverage in rural parts of the country delivered just 75 new mobile sites before it concluded at the end of last month – significantly less than the original goal of 600.

Work on the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) started in 2013 and despite missing its target by such a wide margin, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has elected not to exercise an option to extend the rollout by another year. Arqiva, which won the contract to deliver MIP, said delivery was particularly challenging but says that many of the obstacles that hindered the rollout were overcome during the project’s three year lifespan. It thinks the decision not to extend the project is a “missed opportunity.”

Nicolas Ott, head of telecoms at Arqiva, claimed the task of building sites for all four operators at the same time was a “first in Europe” and required time, technical innovation and the diplomacy skills to build MIP sites in rural areas, many of which are in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

“That brings about a unique set of challenges including physical access, visual disturbance, capital expenditure constraints, power supplies, 4G transmission connections and securing community and stakeholder buy-in.” he told TechWeekEurope. “To move a site from planning permission to delivery all of these elements have to align, and, crucially, have to do so within the allotted timescale.”

Connecting proposed sites to fibre backhaul and gaining planning permission were the chief obstacles and it was more than a year before the task of identifying sites could even begin. By August 2015, more than 200 potential sites had been identified and 105 sites received planning approval. Just five applications were rejected.

“This is well above the industry standard and an achievement we are proud of,” said Ott. Given that 600 sites were targeted, 200 had been identified and 105 had gained planning permission, it’s not unreasonable to suggest another year of rollout could have delivered more. At the end of November 2015, just 15 MIP sites were live, indicating that deployment accelerated in the final six months. “We believe that this was a missed opportunity,” lamented Ott, although he accepted that the government had to make a decision.

“The Government has committed to improving the coverage of the mobile industry to the extent that four mobile operators have entered into a ‘legally binding’ commitment with the government to invest a combined £5 billion in their networks in order to extend at least voice and text services to 90 percent of the UK land mass. However, this was an industry reaction to proposed plans to enforce participation in a ‘national roaming’ network. This would have allowed mobile users to automatically switch to the best available service – a proposal met with universal disdain in the telecoms industry. O2 is also required to deliver indoor 4G coverage to 98 percent of premises in the UK by the end of 2017 as per the terms of its 800MHz spectrum licence and the suggestion is that other operators will come close to matching that.”

“The Telecoms Industry has identified the Planning process as a major hurdle to enabling faster roll out of infrastructure. Earlier this year, the then Prime Minister David Cameron admitted more needed to be done to improve rural coverage and suggested that campaigns to stop masts from being built a decade ago over aesthetic reasons and unproven health concerns had actually had a detrimental impact.”

“There’s clearly more that needs to be done and I think this is something for members right across the House [of Commons],” he said. “Ten years ago, I think we were all guilty of leading campaigns against masts and all rest of it. Our constituents now want coverage for the Internet and their mobile phones.”

“Planning permission for masts is a complicated and time consuming process. Site upgrades often require negotiations with the landlords adding to the cost and complexity of network deployment. Local authorities can also be hostile and some even require individual planning applications for every proposed small cell, a time consuming and expensive process. Indeed, some of the operators have suggested the reasons for MIP’s failure are that the government did not realise how difficult it is to build mobile infrastructure.”

“The government decided to stop funding the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) and the main reason for this cancellation is the fact that it encountered many of the same difficulties operators face when attempting to build infrastructure that will deliver coverage for customers: gaining planning permission in the face of nimbyism, high rents, limited access rights,” said O2. “As a result, MIP fell significantly short of its stated aims: target of 600 new sites that would have resulted in 99 percent coverage.”

“O2 added that it is committed to fulfilling the coverage requirements of its 800MHz licence and says it is in the middle of a £3 billion network modernisation. Three’s efforts to boost coverage are centred on the rollout of long range 800MHz spectrum, Voice over LTE (VoLTE) and Voice over Wi-Fi (VoWi-Fi) to improve its network coverage.”

“EE 4G stated it had spent around £2 billion in its UK network and services over the past couple of years and was actively working to ensure ‘thousands’ of small communities had access to 4G and to improve its indoor and outdoor 3G coverage. It also has its Rural Open Sure Signal (ROSS) project, which is delivering mobile coverage to 100 locations using femtocell technology. Furthermore, EE have just won the Emergency Services Network contract from Airwave which will provide coverage 4G coverage for the Emergency Services across the country.”

“But ultimately, all four major operators are in agreement about the need to reform planning laws and amend the Electronic Communication Code (ECC) if the UK is to get better mobile coverage – especially in rural areas.”

“The ECC underpins relationship between mobile operators and site providers,” Inge Hansen, EE’s head of spectrum told a Westminster eForum. “We need to get to a much more reasonable setup. We need better rights to automatically upgrade sites. It can’t be right that we go to a site to upgrade it to 4G and we’re held to ransom.”

The Electronic Communication Code is currently being debated in the House of Lords and in Parliament and it is hoped by the Government that the new Code will enable faster roll out of infrastructure by reducing costs to the Communications providers. Within the Code the Government proposes the introduction of a valuation system for the land that will be used for telecoms infrastructure. However, the proposed new valuation will reduce the benefits to landowners. This has the potential to reduce the amount of potential sites available for telecoms infrastructure. With the failure of the MIP and the proposed changes to the Code, it is highly likely that this will restrict the roll out of infrastructure in the future rather than encouraging it.

If you have been approached by a telecoms operator for a new letting or to renegotiate or renew an existing agreement please get in touch with Cell:cm Chartered Surveyors.

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