The CEOs of mobile operators EE, O2 and Vodafone have warned the British government that without major changes to existing rules on phone mast installations, it will not be possible to meet the 90 percent coverage target for 2017. The number of masts must rise to 40,000, versus 27,500 now, according to the MNOs. It costs about £100,000 (US $154,000) to set up a mast, and land fees range from £7,500 to £9,000 (US $11,500 to US $13,900). This contrasts with only £270 to £280 (US $416 to US $432), as set by the Electronic Communications Code (ECC), for standing equipment used by energy firms and other utilities. Operators could save up to £271 million (US $418 million) a year if costs were more aligned, according to the Mobile Operators Association. Furthermore, unlike fixed line operator BT, mobile operators do not have a legal right to enter sites without landlords’ consent. Vodafone UK CEO Jeroen Hoencamp called U.K. planning laws the most “difficult” he has encountered. The deployment of the group’s Project Spring network upgrade is more difficult in the U.K. than in its other markets. “A combination of planning permission and landlords makes it more difficult to quickly develop sites here. We need major changes to the ECC to be able to roll out faster. Installing equipment, whether it is an antenna, masts, or cables, has to be made easier and less expensive to us.”
MNOs are often called upon to invest in improving their network infrastructure, and governments are often exhorted to make more and better-quality spectrum available so that MNOs will have the raw materials to create better networks. However, the case of the U.K. illuminates the need for other kinds of initiatives that are necessary preconditions for networks to provide full coverage across a country. Currently, under British law, land rights issues are standing in the way of MNOs getting access to land upon which phone masts could be installed. And in addition to the access problems—which create an imbalance between mobile and fixed line operators—there is the question of fees, which are about 30 times higher for MNOs than for energy firms and other utilities. We agree with the Mobile Operators Association that if the U.K. government expects the MNOs to reach the stated goal of 90 percent coverage by 2017, the red tape and costs must be vastly reduced. Only the government itself can accomplish this.