Communication Breakdown: How reforming the Electronic Communications Code could speed up 5G rollout

  • In order to achieve satisfactory mobile telephony coverage in Britain, telecommunications companies need to site their equipment on land belonging to others.

  • The Electronic Communications Code regulates legal relationships between those companies, or others operating their equipment, and the landowners whose land is used or needed. The Code can be invoked to require landowners to accept the siting of equipment on their land, and to secure a judicial determination of the payments to be made to the landowner.

  • Before 2017 agreements to site equipment tended to be consensual. That year a reform of the Code changed the basis of land valuation. This had the effect of reducing – often substantially – the payments to landowners. Since then, there has been much litigation, apparent ill-will, and consequential delays in reaching agreements, and hence in rolling out the most advanced telecommunications.

  • The simple and obvious solution to the problem is to restore the valuation principles used before 2017, or draft another rule having similar effect. This could be done in the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill.

  • The Government appears determined to prevent the operation of market forces in this way. Instead, it is seeking to change rules and procedures to strengthen the legal position of operators when they are seeking to compel landowners to allow the use of their land.

  • Arguments for and against the Government’s approach are considered. The Government’s case appears weak. It is suggested that the question of the principles of valuation be reconsidered and market forces given freer rein.

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Dr James Forder is Academic and Research Director at the IEA. He has taught economics and sometimes politics at Oxford University since 1993 and is Andrew Graham Fellow and Tutor in Political Economy at Balliol College. His principal research interests have been in central bank independence, and the history of macroeconomics ideas, including especially those following from the work of A W H Phillips; and the work of Milton Friedman. He has also written on the merits of the first past the post electoral system. He believes that public policy could be enormously improved by greater recognition of the power and utility of price mechanisms, as compared to regulatory controls such as prohibitions, licensing rules, and obligations on public bodies to pursue specific quantitative outcomes.

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