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UK's landmark mobile not-spot deal already falling apart
Labour takes umbrage with parliamentary process (and money)
The made-of-straw “landmark deal” to fix the not-spots in mobile phone infrastructure - which has made the UK the poor man of Europe in mobile coverage - is already starting to crumble.
The necessary planning regulation to make it easier for the networks to roll out coverage to 90 per cent of the UK is being clumsily rushed through Parliament, and the opposition Labour Party is militating to defeat it over aspects of the coverage agreement that are not in the regulation.
The deal was predicated on mobile phone networks being able to build and modify masts faster and more cheaply.
Vittorio Colao, the CEO of Vodafone told El Reg that it wanted easier planning permission, rights over landlords when it wanted to upgrade sites, and higher masts.
In the not-spots deal the Department of Culture, Media and Sport hedged by saying it would reform the Electronic Communications Code. Dev Desai, of lawyers Pinsent Masons, explained to us that the regulation was being handled poorly.
“The whole problem with the existing code is that it is a hotchpotch,” he told us. He explained that this is because it was initially rushed through as part of the Communications Act. Now, following the not-spot deal, the regulations are being rushed through again, shoehorned into the Infrastructure Act, which deals with roads and fracking as well as antennae.
The new code does give mobile network operators more control over what can be done on sites, encourages site sharing and removes the power tenants had if a landlord wanted to put a site on a building.
It does, however, give landlords more power over mobile site removal. However, the new code doesn’t address the issues of planning permission, or mast height.
The site-sharing panacea is overblown, and the operators are generally pretty good at sorting out site sharing without needing the government to wield a stick.
And, because the people making the decisions are experts in legislation and property they have completely missed that radio planning a 900MHz network is very different to an 1800MHz one, which is as different again to a 3.4GHz one.
BT/EE and Vodafone have massively different areas of spectrum and sharing only goes some way.
Yet none of this is the reason why Labour is looking to vote against the legislation. The information which was released proudly stated that the UK government would not pay anything towards the improved coverage ... and then snuck in a line saying that the government "will bring this agreement to the attention of Ofcom in the context of their work to revise Annual Licence Fees - this is the subscription fee mobile networks pay government”.
That fee is for spectrum the networks originally got free and for which the government then proposed a £65m annual fee. It then changed its mind to £309m and then to £247m. Labour has seen the implication, that Ofcom will stick to the number it first thought of and only charge £65m.
It’s then taken the difference, multiplied by five (£910m) and then claimed that the government is being sloppy and throwing away a billion pounds over five years.
The bill received its second reading on Thursday night and is working its way through the Parliamentary process.
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport expects to publish the not-spot agreement in the next couple of weeks. ®