I am a chartered surveyor who has worked within the commercial property sector for over 30 years, the last 18 years of which have been within the telecommunications sector.
One particular speciality is working with developers, when vacant possession of a site is required to facilitate a redevelopment. The advance of mobile communications, the reliance now placed on this technology and, latterly, the merging of mobile operators’ networks, means this has become far more complex than it once was and far more complex than it should be.
The lifecycle of any real estate development project – from initial land assembly through to delivery – is complex, so you might think that the relocation or removal of some pretty basic mobile operator equipment from an existing building should be accomplished with relative ease. A series of meetings, a programme, an agreed action plan, possibly the temporary relocation of certain aspects of the apparatus prior to the equipment being removed off-site or potentially reintegrated into the new build.
But the reality is that it can and most likely will take years. A mobile operator’s installation can frustrate a development, inflate the costs of delivery and protract the build programme. Mobile operators tend not to be flexible nimble creatures that can match the development sector in their capacity to problem solve and deliver. This fact alone places the two parties at opposing ends of the problem.
This is not to say the mobile operators do not face significant challenges in maintaining their networks. They do – acquiring, building and integrating a site is fraught with difficulties and these should not be underestimated.
Developers that are faced with the challenge of removing a mobile operator’s installation are well advised to identify, at the outset of a redevelopment scheme, the removal/relocation as an immediate priority to be urgently actioned, professionally resourced and monitored at a high level within the team. This focus will increase the chances of this activity having minimal impact on the development programme.
While it may not always be appropriate or possible, a mobile installation can, in certain instances, be re-worked back into a development. It may be possible for the installations’ visual impact to be mitigated through clever design solutions. However, a developer needs to be mindful of the need to mitigate the operational impact of continuing to accommodate the installation. A site provider currently receives a rental payment for allowing the mobile operators’ apparatus to be sited on the property, and in so doing creates a balance sheet asset but they should not underestimate the cost of dealing with what can become a plethora of access requests, repairs, upgrades, approval of risk assessments, method statements, electricity costs to be recovered – to name but a few of the many considerations. These activities become particularly pertinent with actively-managed buildings, where monitoring the access, egress and permissions can create a small mountain of paperwork.
Into this somewhat complex scenario a new bill, the 2017 Digital Economy Bill, is about to be introduced. Its purpose is to help support the delivery of UK wide digital infrastructure that will hopefully make us proud. It aims to drive down costs, secure as far as possible the existing mobile network and provide far more certainty to future rollouts.
In practice, however, it could make this fractious market even more complicated and may not deliver on its intention. In fact, this is not a clear piece of legislation; no one is sure how exactly it is going to work in practice.
What is clear is that the new legislation is balanced strongly in favour of the telecommunications operators; effectively transporting them into the realm of the utilities, except that utilities rarely require a landlord to accommodate several tons of equipment on the roof of their buildings. The legislation imposes an obligation on a site provider to permit far wider rights to access, carry out works, site share, upgrade and assign their interest, seemingly in certain aspects without consultation. A new valuation regime is set to drive down rents and the rights of a landlord to remove an operator will effectively be limited to redevelopment with a long, probably two-year, two-staged process involving the courts, no-doubt proving to be a rather costly affair for all parties.
The Government obviously needs to promote the digital economy with reliable coverage that supports it and the telecommunications operators may applaud the certainty that this legislation brings. However, the reality is that future rollouts, including 5G now on the horizon, will be adversely affected if landlords, wary of legislation that may tie their hands and financially penalise them, withdraw from the market.
If we are going to build a world-class communications infrastructure the telecommunications operators, government and landlords need each other.
We are now in a world where we do need robust digital infrastructure to function effectively. I believe most landlords would agree that commercial and residential property prices are being adversely impacted where there is inadequate mobile coverage and connectivity. Good network connectivity is now essential for both businesses and for the individual.
There is little merit in not recognising that the road ahead may be rather problematic, but problems are there to be solved. A considered and innovative response is needed now, before the future of networks, property and coverage become compromised by unclear, confusing and inadequately thought out legislation.
My own view, and that of my colleagues at Real Wireless, is that when a developer asks the question – “So, in this realm of fractious uncertainty, how do I deliver a high standard of connectivity within my new development” – we must be able to deliver a clear, comprehensive strategy.
We believe that the problem needs to be approached from a holistic perspective. Flexibility and cooperation need to go hand in hand with constructive and intelligent coverage. We need to help developers make better use of differing backhaul solutions and connectivity that takes in multiple wireless standards, business models, ownership and maintenance models, as well as a variety of hardware solutions including Wi-Fi, small cells, DAS, macro installations, amongst others. We need to identify the relevance of each and their ability to deliver on the aspirations of the developer as well as accommodating the needs of the operators in a balanced way.
Real Wireless is already providing independent expertise with domain experts like myself, to help property developers, landlords, and the telecommunications market to realise the mutual benefits of wireless technology and to deliver solutions that help ensure that a coverage/capacity package works in the most cost-effective manner – for all parties.