The UK currently has around 54,403 mobile phone masts dotted around the country — many of which are on land leased to the major telecoms companies by local landowners.

4,000 leases are due to expire this year, and this could lead to serious consequences for  telecoms companies and consumers alike. In the absence of any regulation, lease renewal negotiations could lead to significant demands from landlords for rent increases in a large number of cases. Telecoms companies will then need to either pass on this cost to the consumer, through more expensive tariffs, or remove macrocells completely and create coverage or capacity gaps. The Telegraph recently wrote an article on this topic.

Macrocells are still vital to mobile coverage

Despite advances in small cell technology and Wi-Fi calling, macrocells remain the backbone of the mobile network, delivering the majority of the UK’s coverage and capacity.

There’s no alternative to macrocells, either, that doesn’t involve some form of relationship with a property or asset owner. In-building connectivity solutions like small cells and DAS do improve coverage and capacity in homes, offices and public buildings, but they will never replace macrocells entirely and do not provide wide area coverage in towns and around the countryside.

Operators need to protect their investment

Vital infrastructure is often expensive to provide and macrocells are no different. Operators naturally want to keep hold of their existing assets, given they’ve invested heavily in constructing macrocells in the first place.

Operators and landowners both know the difficulties with finding alternative sites for macrocells and obtaining planning permission and the time and cost associated with doing this would be significant — whilst the operators could resort to invoking code powers this is not a step that would be taken likely but it cannot be discounted completely as an idle threat.

How rent rises will affect mobile provision

The first impact of rent rises is likely to be felt by users in those locations where high costs force MNOs to remove macrocells, resulting in coverage or capacity gaps. Site closures aren’t going to happen overnight, though. MNOs will fight to keep their sites at rental levels that are either at or below the current level. But if landowners insist on increasing site rent by excessive amounts then users will no doubt have to bear the brunt of the costs through higher tariffs. Most likely the operators will pass some costs onto the users and absorb the majority but this will lead to less investment in new infrastructure in their networks and invariably lead to a negative impact on the digital economy generally.

Can the government intervene ?

The story of land rentals is an old chestnut in the mobile industry. The cycle of site acquisition, rental renewals and notices to quit will carry on as long the mobile industry exists — unless the government  is prepared to intervene to help regulate the rental levels that MNO’s pay for this essential infrastructure. At the same time, MNO’s need to realise that landlords and building owners should not have their genuine development plans for their land or property undermined by MNO macrocells that may have been on there for many years.

The reliance the British public currently places on their mobile communications and, within a few years, the reliance that the Police and other emergency services will have on their vital communications being carried by mobile networks suggests that this particular debate should be opened up and that representatives from the various parties (MNO’s Property owners and Government) can create a solid and sustainable basis that will help maintain mobile communications services throughout the UK.

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