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Disputes Over Rents Continue to Delay UK Rollout of 5G Mobile

Wednesday, July 14th, 2021 (8:34 am) - Score 2,616
ee mobile tower mast uk

The ongoing UK rollout of ultrafast 5G mobile (mobile broadband) networks by EE (BT), Three UK, Vodafone and O2 (VMO2) is reportedly still being slowed by landowners of existing mast sites, many of which have balked at the significantly reduced annual rents now being proposed by operators.

Such disputes are of course nothing new, although in the past it was landowners who took much of the blame for disrupting the rollout of new networks, not least by creating disputes over complex wayleave agreements, which could sometimes make it far too difficult or far too expensive for operators to expand their coverage (particularly when targeting digitally disadvantaged rural areas).

Back in 2017 the Government attempted to correct for this by revising the associated Electronic Communications Code (ECC), not least by making it easier and cheaper for telecoms operators to access public or private land in order to build new networks (here).

However, by the end of 2018 it had become very clear that some telecoms operators were dramatically cutting the rents they pay on infrastructure.

The Cost of Rent

For example, some rents on greenfield sites that would have previously attracted c.£5,000 a year or more were cut to under £10, while some farmers saw deals fall from £12,000 to just £50 (here), and it was a similar story for rooftop sites.

The Tribunal process for resolving such disputes soon became clogged up with a backlog of cases. By the end of 2019 there had been some improvement, thanks in part to a clarification on the valuation regime introduced by the reformed ECC, and the settling of some key cases. But Sky News reports today that while the situation may have improved, it is now causing delays to the rollout of newer 5G networks.

The new report highlights an example from Lancashire, where the Fox Lane Sports and Social Club in Leyland has been offered around 10% of the current rent for EE to install 5G kit on their mast site (i.e. the rent has fallen from £7,400 a year to £700). The club promptly described this as “unacceptable” and rejected it, preferring instead to do deals “with other sponsors who come on site and enjoy better partnerships.

Meanwhile, the Protect & Connect campaign, which is run by land aggregation business AP Wireless (vested interest – the ECC changes may threaten the premiums they charge) and claims to be fighting for fairness over rents, recently highlighted the example of a church in Gomersal that currently gets £14,000 from two masts on its tower, but they’re now facing a 93% rent cut down to £1,000.

However, the Chair of telecoms operators’ lobby group Speed up Britain, Patricia Hewitt, said such sites should accept they’ve had a “very nice little earner” in the past, but must now agree to rent cuts in order to help improve digital connectivity.

Patricia Hewitt, Chair of Speed up Britain, said:

“I sympathise with sports clubs and community groups and churches who have had this very nice little earner from their mobile phone mast over several years.

The average rent reduction across all the agreements that have been reached is about 63% … these kinds of figures illustrate what the real problem was before 2017; the rents had got completely out of line and completely unsustainable.”

Few would disagree that the old system of rents was far too generous to landowners, thus the revised 2017 ECC was partly an attempt to move the treatment of mobile and broadband infrastructure on to a similar footing as those of essential utility providers (water, gas, electricity etc.), where rental payments have generally been much lower. But clearly some problems remain.

For land and property owners, there can also be complex considerations, such as the need to facilitate access and the inability to repurpose such sites for other more lucrative ventures / buildings once deployed. Likewise, where rooftop sites on buildings are concerned, there can be issues of mobile kit impacting insurance, proximity of base stations to residents, and the fact that the property owner has to keep the area repaired (potentially becoming liable if they fail to do so). A small annual payment may not be enough to cover such issues.

On the flip side, as the country is increasingly moving to regard broadband and mobile connectivity as an essential utility, then it does follow that we must also treat the installation of such services in much the same way. As ever, there are pros and cons with such changes. At the end of the day, making such infrastructure cheaper to deploy will ultimately lead to better coverage, and that’s what we all want.

On another note, the article claims there’s now a risk that the increasing delays could result in the government’s “target of getting a 5G signal to 51% of the UK population by 2027” being missed. But we should clarify that the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto seemed to drop its 2017 pledge to “have the majority of the population covered by a 5G signal by 2027” (hence the 51% figure) and instead merely pledged to “provide greater mobile coverage across the country.” In reality, this is an almost entirely commercial rollout.

However, last year’s decision to strip Huawei from UK networks seems likely to be a bigger problem, with the Government having previously confirmed that they expected this to delay completion of the 5G rollout by 2-3 years and add costs of up to £2bn to operators (here). Nevertheless, based on current progress, achieving 51% population coverage by 2027 still looks very achievable to us, although we haven’t seen operators setting any 5G coverage targets since the Huawei decision.

On top of all that, the 5G rollout is also continuing to be disrupted by objections to related planning permission requests, often over unproven health fears (5G Fact Check), conspiracy theories or due to concerns about the visual impact upon the area or local house prices. Just in the last week there have been several such examples (here, here and here).

The Government are currently proposing various amendments to the 2017 ECC that will aim to put right some of the problems caused by their last revision (here), but this may do little to help those who feel that the rents now being offered are too low. On top of that, there are other changes coming down the pipe that could enable taller masts and a softer process to achieve planning permission (here).

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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10 Responses
  1. anonymous says:

    Sorry but if I had a building and they wanted to offer £50 rent per year, it wouldn’t be worth the risk of the stuff.

    Sounds like public who own a bit of land, including a farmer, who are being dictated to by government and telecoms companies who make profit from their services. If you own the land it should be yours. A mast on it would require access rights to it, a road and its all over your land.

    I wonder if the telecoms companies would agree to slash my mobile bill to £2 a month to help me digitally connect. Thought not!!!!

    And there there is dear Jenrick. A blagger, so desperate to “simplify” (dumb down and give no rights of scrutiny basically) planning laws. So dumbed down that around 400 railway bridges, a number stone built viaducts are penned for destruction or bricking up. Again, done on the sly with no scrutiny. I wonder if he has any interests in construction related companies? Often the case with politicians, noses in the trough and all that…

    Look at the rent rates that the telecoms have slashed them to, they are taking the p*** quite frankly. Hardly “reasonable” rate, especially as 5G towers being set on fire by ill informed people and that’s additional risk for a site.

    1. Carl O says:

      “ I wonder if the telecoms companies would agree to slash my mobile bill to £2 a month to help me digitally connect. Thought not!!!!”

      No, they increase it annually instead to do this.

    2. Jack says:

      You’re completely spot on, to make up for networks poor coverage they tell us to use WiFi calling, therefore using our own broadband to use the mobile therefore we pay twice to make a call. WiFi calls should be free (regardless of allowance) Orange used to do free calls on Blackberry when you used UMA (old WiFi calling)

    3. anonymous says:

      and they’ll go up regardless anyway. Inflation + percentage every year increase anyone??????????

  2. Carl O says:

    I agree somewhat the significant drop is wrong, but then if you weighed up the actual cost to the landlords it’s probably nowhere near the rents they were receiving previously.

    A farmers piece of land would need to be justified of how much money they would have made should the mast or equipment not be there.

    Private landlords with masts attached, the cost of the additional insurance covered and relevant “cleaning” or maintenance of said areas covered, again, more likely nowhere near the thousands they previously received.

    It just goes back to greed at the end of the day and small selfish acts impacting what could be a majority of their society.

    It’ll be interesting to see if/when operators can start building poles etc without prior approval similarly to telephone poles.

    1. André says:

      You don’t need to justify anything, IMHO.
      The farmer sets the rate. The company agrees or it looks for somewhere else.
      This is how the market works and I don’t see what the government has to do with it.

    2. Gary says:

      Landowners shouldn’t have to justify anything it’s their land to do with as they wish.

      I know the government can and do force people from the homes and land for various projects, but I guess we wouldn’t be able to arrogantly criticise you for say, not wanting one right on the middle of your back garden because you wouldn’t be greedy or selfish you would do it for the greater good.

  3. Mike says:

    This is a private matter that the government should not be getting involved with, if governments wants to reduce rents then it should think more carefully before inflating the money supply/housing market.

  4. Michael V says:

    Land owners need to accept that they will be paid less in rent.
    Other utility companies pay a lot less.
    It’s unfair to ask for amounts like £17,000 a year in rent.
    This battle should have been resolved years ago, or at least not still be causing such a bit issue.

    1. anonymous says:

      Equally £50 per year is taking the pee.

      Its someone’s land they actually paid for and own (where freehold exists).

      How about I pop into telecoms building and use their office space whenever I like. They charge me to use their services so tough luck, pay up a decent reasonable fee for using people’s land. The telecoms companies are arrogant too and insist on it being what they want even if you had plans for that particular patch of land. Its not just the land either, its the roadways into the cell tower for access and strange people on your land to service the damn thing.

      The market system means pay up or go somewhere cheaper….I can think of retentions companies where they’ve said to go cheaper elsewhere. Oh, that’s right, one sided in favour of large business again. They can chose if they would lose money but not a land owner.

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