Now we’re out of lockdown, it’s time to Speed Up Britain.
With lockdown measures easing and a gradual return to normal life now in progress here in the UK, it feels appropriate to reflect on the uniqueness of our recent experience and think hard about what it all means for our society.
One striking aspect has been that for many of us, despite being locked down, we haven’t been locked out of the relationships and connections that keep us informed, guard us against loneliness and in some cases, protect us from harm.
Thanks in large part to our mobile networks, we’ve been able to stay close to our loved ones, access important services and work more flexibly than many of us imagined we could.
Our emergency services have been able to rely on the technology they need to support the most vulnerable among us. We’ve seen families connect with loved ones in their final moments in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without the connectivity we’ve come to rely so much on.
We truly live in a digital age and we have much to be thankful for.
But while this pandemic has highlighted how much some of us benefit from mobile networks, the experience has also shown we have work to do in delivering the benefits of connectivity to everyone in the country.
That opportunity is real, and people know it. New polling tells us 65% of those who think mobile internet is important for their work think 5G could be positively transformative. 59% of SMEs surveyed also think 5G will be positively transformative for them.
The reality is that to achieve a connected future for everyone, our mobile infrastructure needs a reboot. We need new towers to extend coverage; we need to upgrade existing equipment. But we can’t.
The problem is, the legislation designed to make all this possible – the Electronic Communications Code – isn’t working. When the Code was introduced in 2017, the aim was to make it easier and cheaper for providers to make the changes the UK needs to keep pace with the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, that’s not happening nearly quickly enough. The relationship between industry and its landowner-hosts needs repairing. Disputes over rents are making agreements impossible. Intermediaries are exploiting the breakdown for their own ends. Infrastructure isn’t being upgraded or rolled out effectively, and we’re not moving forwards.
There’s no doubt we need to get things moving if the Government is going to achieve its 5G ambitions and the Code’s intention is to be realised.
But it’s not just going magically to happen.
That’s why today, with the launch of our Speed up Britain campaign, the industry is joining together to call for action to give Britain the mobile network it deserves.
We – industry, landowners, their representatives and government – need to come together in the spirit of fairness and pragmatism to find a solution to this problem, and release the invisible handbrake on the UK’s progress towards 5G and other new technologies. That’s what our campaign is all about.
Ultimately, we think the right place to start is to take another look at the law. First, we need to close the loopholes that make it pay to hold up the process. Then, we need to make sure the new Code enables us to access and upgrade sites, and applies to all agreements to build new infrastructure. Finally, we need the process for renewing agreements to be more efficient.
But this is not just about the government. We want to have better and more informed conversations with landowners about their needs and how we can all do our part to improve mobile connectivity in Britain. And we want to make sure that public sector organisations such as local councils place mobile connectivity at the heart of their decision-making when making land available for use.
With those problems solved, we’ll stand a chance of success. If we fail, we risk missing a once-in-a-generation chance to fulfil the promise of truly connected nation.
Ed Vaizey was Chair of the Speed Up Britain campaign until his elevation to the House of Lords in September 2020, when he stood down from this role. He was previously the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries