Companies are Fighting Over Lamp Posts, and That's Bad for the Impending 5G Rollout

By Shabana Arif on at

Lamp posts are prime real estate for mobile network operators as they ramp up to roll out 5G across the UK, but Ofcom's electronics communications code has resulted in litigation disputes that could delay the process by two years, reports the Guardian.

Theo Blackwell, London’s chief digital officer, has criticised the ambiguity of the code, saying that while "the intention of the code was to make it easier and cheaper for MNOs to roll out infrastructure" the lack of guidance from the government has "delayed deployments by two years, whilst the new code is being tested in the courts.”

According to Alicia Foo, a partner and property lawyer Pinsent Masons - a firm that represents landowners and MNOs - the tribunal system is "clogging up" with cases; more so than under the previous code. "Our court system takes a long time so a two-year delay is not inconceivable," she said.

"Everyone thought the new code was going to be this brave new world of faster connectivity, but on the question of money it has become very polarised between landowners and operators. I wonder whether the government was taken aback by the sheer number of operators who just want to have a go.

"I’m a litigator but I don’t think the answer is litigation because tribunals only decide very narrow issues put before them, not broad principles. The government could be more helpful in terms of guidance."

Westminster City Council is currently embroiled in its own set of problems with BT over the use of lamp posts for 5G in its planned deal with Ontix. BT isn't happy with the decision “on the basis that it would prevent competition on individual lampposts,” and Westminster’s lead councillor for digital issues, Jonathan Glanz, says BT is similarly challenging five other London boroughs.

"We’re working with local, regional and national governments to roll out even better connectivity to the areas that need it most as quickly and efficiently as possible," said a BT spokeswoman. "Ensuring that street furniture can be used to host digital infrastructure will become increasingly important to deliver the services customers will expect. So, working closely with councils, we’re keen to remove existing barriers to access, reflecting the approach set out in the new electronic communications code.”

It wasn't too long ago that BT was getting a slap on the wrist from Ofcom for not sharing its telegraph poles with other internet providers, although the spokeswoman reminded the Guardian of BT's efforts earlier this year to ensure that local councils provide access to street furniture to guarantee fair, equal access.

"While the concessions model made sense in the early 2010’s when it first came into common use, the market and regulatory landscape have changed and it’s become clear that exclusivity agreements act as a barrier to further 4G and 5G investments," director of network strategy at BT, Paul Ceely, said back in March (via TechRadar).

“Government initiatives such as the DCMS Barrier Busting taskforce are showing the way, but we believe that industry needs to act. We are leading the way by handing back exclusivity in nine key areas."

As long as the government sits around with its thumb up its arse as the nitty gritty of the new code gets figured out, expect a sluggish rollout of 5G as the battle for the lamp posts continues.

Featured image: Unsplash