Ministers have written to local authorities asking that they help speed up the rollout of gigabit broadband and 5G mobile coverage by expediting the installation of infrastructure and countering 5G disinformation.
Digital infrastructure minister Matt Warman and local government minister Simon Clarke have urged councils to follow new government advice on land access and valuations, which will apparently allow deals granting access for infrastructure such as 5G masts and full fibre broadband cabinets on public land to be signed off more quickly.
Councils are also being asked to appoint a ‘digital champion’ to work across a number of teams on bringing together a cohesive digital infrastructure strategy.
“We want to help people get access to fast and reliable connectivity. It is a top priority for this government,” said Warman in a statement. “Councils have a vital role to play in the rollout of digital infrastructure and while there is good work going on up and down the country, there is more we can do.”
“This will help to drive growth locally and is part of this Government’s mission to level up every area of our country and help local areas to recover after the pandemic,” added Clarke.
The Tory government’s plan to “level up” disadvantaged parts of the UK has been widely derided as inadequate. After years of austerity, the government’s Industrial Strategy Council said in a report in February that regional income inequality was the same level as in 1901.
Since then, the most deprived areas have experienced the most deaths from coronavirus, and are facing the greatest budget deficits. Liverpool has warned of a £137m funding gap between the money it has spent on responding to coronavirus and the government funds pledged to the local authority.
Hamish Macleod, director at Mobile UK, said: “Telecoms companies need to secure rights to install their infrastructure on public sector land and buildings. But there are concerns some deals are not progressing quickly enough. This means homes, businesses and mobile customers are missing out on faster and more reliable internet connections.
“While councils are obliged to get ‘best value’ when agreeing land access agreements, ministers expect them to take into account non-monetary benefits such as enhanced connectivity for residents to work from home and SMEs to trade online. The guidance also highlights recent legal interpretations of the current framework which indicate reductions in previous rents are to be expected.”
A digital divide in terms of broadband roll-out exists, but is generally explained by providers’ lack of motivation to set up in areas that are more difficult to make a profit in, rather than the speed with which planning permission is signed off by local councils.
At present, only 13 per cent of the UK has access to full fibre and the UK comes 35th out of 37 countries in terms of full fibre connections as a proportion of overall broadband infrastructure. Speaking earlier this year, Ofcom competition policy director David Clarkson said that the government’s full fibre broadband target could take another five to seven years to achieve.
Outrage was sparked earlier this week over news that a consortium of private equity firms are planning a bid for BT – something that would likely to slow roll-out even further.
In addition to advice on land sales, councils also received guidance on the safety and benefits of 5G to counter the deluge of disinformation about the new technology, which has led conspiracy theorists to set masts on fire and harass technicians.
Philip Marnick, spectrum group director at Ofcom, said in statement: “The UK has a great opportunity to be a world leader in 5G – making the most of the benefits this new technology offers people and businesses. So it’s important that public bodies work together to address some of the myths and misinformation around 5G, and that decisions are based on sound evidence.”
Whether the UK has an opportunity to be a world leader in 5G is highly dubious. Earlier this year, the UK decided to cut Chinese telecoms company Huawei out of its network, something that will delay roll-out by at least a couple of years and add billions in costs. Huawei is the world leader in 5G technology, and the decision to oust it from the network leaves Ericsson and Nokia as the main alternatives, neither of which are as advanced in terms of the technology.