27th March 2019

Telecoms giant BT (EE) has called for an “end to exclusive concessions agreements” on UK council owned street furniture, which they say has become a “barrier” to the roll-out of 4G and 5G mobile (mobile broadband) services, not least by only granting certain companies access to use it but not others.

A number of rival operators and other companies, such as wireless infrastructure firm Arqiva in London, have secured significant concession agreements that grant them access to build new small cell style mobile / WiFi infrastructure on top of or inside local street furniture (lampposts, CCTV columns etc.). Some such agreements can be exclusive and BT aren’t happy about having to pay a third-party for wholesale access.

BT plans to hold a workshop in Birmingham during April 2019 with local authorities and UK mobile operators, where they will propose the need for an alternative Open Access Model to help speed-up the roll out of further 4G and future 5G deployments by “promoting equivalent access and lowering the cost of investment.”

In support of this new proposed model, BT has also offered to hand back its own exclusivity arrangements around street furniture with the 9 UK cities where it currently has concessions agreements in place (i.e. Glasgow, Cardiff, Brighton, Plymouth, Carlisle, Newcastle/Gateshead, Nottingham, Gloucester and Leicester).

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The operator also believes that recent changes to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) – which came into force in December 2017 – “make such exclusivity agreements void“.

Paul Ceely, BT Group’s Director of Network Strategy, 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.

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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.”

Unpicking such agreements, particularly those that have been signed in recent years, could prove to be very difficult as many will already be attached to existing contracts that cannot simply be broken without consequence. On the other hand the fact that future 5G networks will require a denser infrastructure roll-out in cities means that this issue is suddenly much more important than it once was.

A question mark also exists over how such an Open Access Model would actually work, particularly as there’s only so much free space on street furniture and you can’t have multiple operators sticking lots of different kit within the same limited space (with a single operator it’s easy to cosmetically hide). One option might be to agree a shared setup and thus shared costs, but in this industry organising such agreements is like herding cats.

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