Access to rural mobile phone masts sites was the dominant theme of the UK Parliament’s debate over reform to the Electronic Communications Code.
The Code has been viewed as a major barrier to improving mobile coverage across the UK by mobile networks, due to the complexities of the legalisation.
Initially changes to the code had been a condition of the major network operator’s £5bn deal to provide better coverage to rural areas. However, a lack of time to consider what changes to make delayed action.
The debate focused on the various challenges that prevent rural coverage being improved. The problem of landlords charging ‘ransom rents’ for access to mobile mast sites in rural locations was one raised by Andrew Percy, a Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole and the Isle of Axeholme, he said: ‘We need to end the practice of landowners being able to demand ransom rents because the lack of alternative sites locally means a lack of competition. That is a particular problem for rural roll-out.
Percy explained that he had spoken to operators before the debate who had told him of the time impact of the Code particularly in rural areas: ‘Before this debate, the operators told me that they can build a new site and put in new kit in about three months, but, because of the complexities of the code, it takes a year to 18 months to complete that work.
‘With landowners in rural areas, it can be more complicated and difficult to get access. The average punter expects an outage in the network to be fixed within four hours. At the moment, it takes about 48 hours, and sometimes a lot longer, for the companies to negotiate access.’
Not everyone believed that it was landowners who were exploiting the situations with masts, Graham Stuart, Conservative MP for Beverley and Holderness, warned that changes to local site access might unduly effect some farmers, he said: ‘I represent a rural constituency, so many of my constituents own land… Some are farmers who want to ensure that they get a fair return for any disruptions.
‘There are reasons why the Government might create frameworks that impinge on the exploitation of land by its owners for the maximum return—such is the importance of this utility to our constituents. There are also regulatory issues that are driven not by the landowners but by the rules.’