The Electronic Communications Code – What’s changing?

Changes to the Electronic Communications Code are due to be brought into force shortly. What is 'the Code' and why are the changes being made?

A key topic of conversation at this year’s RICS Telecoms Forum Conference was the Electronic Communications Code (“the Code”) and the effects on the whole industry of its implementation. There have been, and will continue to be many hours of debate and column inches dedicated to the subject, so why is the Code so significant?

1984

First, a bit of background. The original Code started life as the Telecommunications Code – Schedule 2 to the Telecommunications Act 1984. The 1980s were the dawn of the mobile telecoms age so as well as paving the way for the privatisation of British Telecom and criminalising indecent, offensive or threatening phone calls, the act also granted certain rights to companies who would become known as ‘Code operators’, to enable them to install and maintain electronic communications apparatus (an Operator is an electronic communications operator who has obtained a direction from Ofcom that the Code applies to them). The three main benefits granted to Code operators were: The power to obtain or retain rights over land; the power to undertake works on highway land; and the benefit of permitted development rights.

The telecoms industry has now changed beyond all recognition. Our industry contains many different parties working in lots of different areas of expertise, some of which may not even have existed when the Code was originally conceived. It would have been a brave man or woman who predicted how ubiquitous mobile phones would become, let alone the dominance of the connected smart phone.

Utilities

Connectivity is now widely considered to be the fourth utility, and in the UK sufficient mobile coverage is often considered a right, rather than a privilege. But we still have a situation in the UK where there are the haves, and the have-nots. Electronic telecommunications rely on the availability of a suitable network, and it falls to Code Operators to build out that network. However, there is a situation at present where the related costs for building out an electronic communications network, specifically the cost for rents, are significantly higher than those paid by utilities and providers of other essential services.

As such, long overdue changes to the Code have been in development since a Law Commission consultation began back in summer 2012. The subsequent report recommended reform to the Code, and the Government has carried out extensive consultation with all stakeholders before bringing forward the amendments to the legislation.

Opening the way for faster and more reliable broadband and mobile services

On 19 October 2017, DCMS laid the draft regulations in Parliament needed to start reform of the Electronic Communications Code. The changes “will help ensure network providers achieve the coverage and connectivity targets set by government to reach the hardest-to-reach places in the UK.”

In the announcement, DCMS stated:

  • Reforms made today to outdated legislation will reduce the costs of housing phone masts and other communications infrastructure on private land. This opens the way for faster and more reliable broadband and mobile services, particularly in rural areas.
  • Changes to the UK’s Electronic Communications Code will:
    • bring down the rents telecoms operators pay to landowners to install equipment to be more in line with utilities providers, such as gas and water;
    • make it easier for operators to upgrade and share their equipment with other operators to help increase coverage;
    • make it easier for telecoms operators and landowners to resolve legal disputes.

It is expected that the new Code will be brought into force around the turn of the year. Legislation this complex will not simply be a case of one set of rules being replaced by another. This is a huge change and there will be a period of transition. This is where it is important that the whole industry works together.

Delivering the intent of the Code

Arqiva, as a significant Code operator, is fully behind the new Code.

Digital Minister, Matt Hancock’s quote from the announcement on 19 October said:

“It’s not good enough that many people are struggling with poor mobile and broadband connections which is why we are improving coverage across the UK.

“We want everyone to benefit from the growth of digital services. Removing these outdated restrictions will help promote investment in new technologies such as 5G, and give mobile operators more freedom to improve their networks in hard-to-reach places.”

We are aware that delivering on the intent of the code will involve collaboration (and debate) with many parties, and we are primed and ready to engage. What we are also aware of, is that successful adherence to the intent of the code is needed to deliver the aims of the Digital Economy Bill.

This is a big change and Arqiva is fully behind the ethos of the Code and plans to deliver on it. We firmly believe it will prove to be good for the UK as a whole as it makes clear what we should be working towards – better connectivity for those who need it.

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