New laws aim to extend fibre and 4G coverage to notspots

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The UK government has introduced a tranche of law changes that it claims to facilitate the availability of gigabit broadband and 5G coverage in the UK, whilst giving Ofcom greater regulatory powers.

The package includes provisions for bringing the European Electronics Communications Code into UK law.

Although no longer a member state, the UK played a significant role in the code’s content and the government wants to meet the minimum standards to provide flexibility for the future relationship with the EU.

UK connectivity

Specifically, Ofcom has been given powers to collect information on commercial fibre rollouts so that other providers – and the government – can direct resources to underserved areas. Up to £5 billion of public money has been earmarked to further fibre coverage.

Ofcom will gain powers to force providers to share equipment in areas where installing network infrastructure is challenging or expensive, while the regulator’s market review period will extend from three to five years in order to encourage investment.

Additional consumer rights, such as easier switching and the better regulation of bundled contracts are also included.

Separately, the government has acquiesced to demands from mobile operators to reform planning laws for masts. Operators will be allowed to build taller masts and add more equipment. This will improve coverage and make it easier to share infrastructure.

All four operators have signed up to the £1 billion ‘Shared Rural Network’ initative that will see them share masts in areas of the country that don’t have access to all four networks. The aim is to increase total 4G coverage to 95 per cent of the UK’s landmass by 2025.

Operators will also be allowed to build masts closer to major roads and will also be allowed to strengthen existing towers. Networks will also be free to build cabinets with 5G radio kit next to masts without prior approval.

“These changes will help target public funding in hard to reach areas most in need of better broadband,” declared Matt Warman, minister for digital infrastructure. “It will also help mobile companies banish rural not-spots by upgrading and sharing their masts.”

The European Electronics Commissions Code is separate to the UK’s own Electronics Communication Code (ECC) which is a source of contention among operators. They argue reforms introduced in 2017 that looked to make it easier to negotiate with landlords are not working as intended and want it to be overhauled.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.