Operator-backed changes to the Electronic Communications Code have come under fire from representatives of landowners affected by the deal. The new Code aims to provide operators with the legal right to access sites and the ability to use the courts to purchase certain sites.
However, lawyers representing landowners in relation to mobile phone mast sites have criticised the Code, arguing that the new measures will not improve rural coverage and were hastily constructed, repeating the same mistakes.
Speaking exclusively to Mobile Luke Maidens, associate, property litigation at Shullmans LLP, which has represented a large number of landowners with mobile masts, explained why he and his clients were unhappy: ‘These Code amendments seem to envisage that money saved on key revenue-making urban sites will be voluntarily reinvested in building and running loss-making sites in the countryside, rather than in enhancing profits. The cynic in me says that appears naïve. Why not just properly subsidise these last rural sites and leave the market to deal with the rest?
‘The whole thing has been rushed through generally, last year they tried to put through changes to the Code under the radar in ahasty amendment to the Infrastructure Bill, which was subsequently withdrawn, following a backlash.
‘This time, they appear to be replicating many of the issues with the old Code – unnecessarily complex and convoluted, and provisions which simply don’t or will not work in practice. The government needs to take a step back and think this through.
‘Where there still remains a lack of rural coverage, that is almost certainly because a site in that location is not economic to build and run.’
Responding to Maidens’ criticisms, a spokesperson for O2 argued that the new Code was a step in the right direction to bring mobile in line with fixed line operators’ access rights, and also stated: ‘The proposed ECC Bill sets us on the right path but we all need to work together to deliver the country’s digital infrastructure and secure an economic future for everyone.’
A Three spokesperson echoed the words of its rival, describing the new code as a fair balance between landowners and the operators: ‘Changes to the ECC are welcome and long overdue. When implemented they will make network extension and improvements both easier and more efficient. They also strike a fair balance between operators and landowners and lay a firm foundation to improve rural coverage.’
A Vodafone UK spokesperson also praised the changes: ‘We welcome the government’s Digital Economy Bill. We have been calling for changes to property law to help us roll out mobile networks more sustainably for a long time, so it is good to see those reforms published.’
An EE spokesperson agreed: ‘The new Code better reflects the importance of mobile communications to individuals, businesses and the wider economy. The Code will help operators upgrade equipment and expand coverage, and gain access to sites to ensure service continuity. We expect to continue to have normal commercial conversations with landlords, but welcome the new rights as a backstop against extraordinary rent demands, which put current and future mobile services at risk.’