UK minister tells telcos to share telegraph poles if they can't lay cable underground

The NIMBYs are fed up, and it's an election year

The UK's Data and Digital Infrastructure Minister wants telcos to stop installing new telegraph poles.

Minister Julia Lopez at the Department for Science, Innovation & Technology (DSIT) has written to operators including Virgin Media O2, Openreach, and KCOM, asking them to do "everything possible" to share existing telegraph poles before deciding to install new ones.

While telegraph poles are recognized as being crucial to bring faster and cheaper connectivity to people across the UK, the minister thinks new infrastructure should only be built above ground when sharing existing infrastructure or installing lines underground is "not viable."

This seems fair enough, but the text of the letter to the operators reveals what the real beef is: complaints to MPs from residents angry about the installation of new broadband infrastructure.

"A number of MPs have brought to my attention the frustrations of communities they represent over the duplication of overhead fiber networks," it states. "They have advised that their constituents feel they have no control over how infrastructure is deployed in their local area, and this can negatively affect the overall perception of full fibre deployment."

These concerns are most prominent in "a small number of areas in England," the letter by Lopez states, tellingly.

But seriously, are telcos really still deploying telegraph poles in this day and age? It would appear so. An FAQ on the website of Freedom Fibre states: "Using telegraph poles as opposed to laying cables underground is much quicker, more affordable, less disruptive, and considerably better for the environment."

"On a recent project, a staggering 2,400 kg of carbon was saved by installing telegraph poles as opposed to digging up roads and paths to lay the cable underground."

The DSIT letter goes on to say that the government is "committed to ensuring there is a competitive broadband market so that everyone can receive the connectivity they need at an affordable price," and that it has pledged to ensure gigabit-capable connections are available to 85 percent of UK premises by 2025 and 99 percent of premises by 2030.

Lopez says that telegraph poles are important for delivering efficient and cost-effective coverage to communities, as they enable broadband deployment without costly and disruptive roadworks.

But, she adds, in light of "increasing public concern," it is more important than ever for telcos to ensure they do everything possible to explore the possibility of sharing existing infrastructure and use below-ground network deployment before erecting additional poles.

"New telegraph poles should only be in cases where installing lines underground is not reasonably practicable, and only after ensuring that appropriate community engagement has taken place and that the siting of new infrastructure will not cause obstructions to traffic or unduly impact the visual amenity of the local area," Lopez instructs.

DSIT is considering revisions to the existing Cabinet Siting and Pole Siting Code of Practice. The intention is to develop a refreshed set of guidelines to ensure that communities "feel engaged" in the deployment of new broadband infrastructure, and still allow operators to deploy networks.

So does this mean that telecoms companies are going to have to get the approval of the NIMBYs before deploying infrastructure, regardless of commitments to connect as many people as possible? Well, it is an election year so MPs are perhaps more sensitive than they might otherwise be to the complaints of constituents.

We also note previous reports of an uptick in attacks on telecoms infrastructure, with a group of network providers calling on the UK government this week to help protect fiber-optic networks.

The letter "highlights the tricky balance between building out telecom infrastructure to improve connectivity and preserving the aesthetics of a particular area or community," said CCS Insight director of Consumer and Connectivity Kester Mann.

"Sharing infrastructure – particularly in rural areas – can minimize its impact on the eye, whilst also avoiding duplicate costs for the industry," he added. ®

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