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Budget 2018: Landlords could be forced to grant access for full-fibre connections

Currently 'no incentive' for telcos to chase lazy 'uns who ignore requests, admits

Up to 40 per cent of UK landlords ignore telcos’ requests to connect properties for full-fibre broadband, the government has said, and current laws incentivise operators to exclude those tenants rather than press for access.

The government has committed to rolling out gigabit-capable connections across the nation by 2033, and as part of yesterday’s Budget announced new measures aimed at achieving this.

This includes a proposal to oblige landlords to respond to operators’ requests for access to tenanted properties, and for UK magistrates courts to be able to hand out temporary access orders if they don’t.

The move aims to address one of the barriers reported by telecoms operators: they must have formal permissions from landowners to enter properties and install equipment, but a lot of landlords, especially those with blocks of flats, just ignore them.

According to the telcos, these requests for access go without replies in 25 to 40 per cent of cases, with one firm saying that in one (unnamed) city centre, 96 per cent of properties couldn’t be connected due to access issues. Virgin Media estimated it could connect two million more properties if access rights were addressed.

Telcos have told the government that in a number of cases this involves properties owned as investments by foreign individuals, shell companies or pension schemes.

At the moment, the Electronic Communications Code, which governs network operators’ rights to build comms infrastructure on land, encourages “commercial negotiation and voluntary agreements”.

There is a fall-back option – the operators could go to the Lands Chamber of the Upper Tribunal to ask for the agreements to be imposed – but in reality this route has never been used.

The government said this is due to the resources involved – it could take seven to 12 months to resolve just one case, and there are 1.7 million residential landlords in the UK and 50 per cent of companies rent their commercial premises. Pursuing all cases would overwhelm the tribunal, the government added.

Usually, telcos make two or three requests and then give up, with the consultation document noting that, “when landlords are unresponsive there is little incentive for operators to allocate additional administrative resources to actively pursue the landlord or keep construction crews within an area to undertake the necessary work to connect the property”.

As work to expand the networks increases, the government said, “so will the commercial pressures and the need to maintain momentum”, which will reduce the incentive and capacity for operators to chase landlords.

But this risks cutting a large number of households and companies off from gigabit speeds and so the government is proposing (PDF) a change to the Code, which will place an obligation on landlords to facilitate access once notified.

If a landlord is absent or unidentifiable – or if they don’t reply – access can be granted on a temporary basis through a magistrates court-issued warrant of entry. Similar powers exist for gas, water and electricity industries.

The government said the legislation would set out what the “substantive requirements are for an operator to meet before applying to the court”, which might be how and how often operators must have tried to contact the landlord.

In addition to these efforts to kick unresponsive landlords into action, the government has also issued a consultation (PDF) on changes to the law that aim to ensure new builds are connected up to gigabit-capable networks.

This proposes property developers and network operators share the costs of connecting new build sites to these networks, with operators contributing to the costs of connections up to commercial norms and developers covering the rest, as well as paying for the physical infrastructure that supports the connections.

It would also allow a developer to impose a duty to connect provision on network operators if commercial terms can’t be agreed on.

Both of these consultations are open until 21 December, and were issued as part of the government’s interim response to the National Infrastructure Assessment, which was published in July.

The response also highlighted the Budget commitments of £200m for piloting new approaches to deploying full fibre connectivity to rural locations, and £1bn for investment in digital and broadband infrastructure. ®

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