Get orf my land! Could farmers derail UK’s mobile ambitions?
Photo courtesy of the NFU.

Get orf my land! Could farmers derail UK’s mobile ambitions?

Internet of Business says

The UK government published an enigmatic statement this morning on the reformed Electronic Communications Code (ECC) – the 2017 rules that are designed to accelerate the upgrade of the UK’s communications infrastructure.

Internet of Business’ investigations reveal that the subtext of that statement has important implications for the UK’s mobile, full-fibre broadband, and 5G ambitions.

According to the announcement this morning, industry, the landowner community, representative bodies, and government have all “come together to reaffirm [their] commitments to the ECC” and to the communications regulator, Ofcom, code of practice that relates to it.

This begs the question: why?

A group of interested parties met earlier this month at a roundtable to discuss the reformed code (details of which are set out below). The main participants – MobileUK, the Country Land and Business Association, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) – have now issued a joint statement on that meeting.

It reads:

“The reformed Electronic Communications Code (ECC) came into force in December 2017 with the aim of boosting coverage and connectivity across the UK, through a package of measures which government expects to deliver significant cost reductions to the sector, while ensuring that landowners receive a fair payment for allowing their land to be used.

“Since the new legislation was introduced, there have been problems with negotiations progressing. While some initial uncertainty is to be expected, government, regulators, the telecoms sector, independent infrastructure providers, and the landowner community, recognise the importance of all parties working collaboratively together, both during this transition period and moving forwards.

“We are therefore coming together to reaffirm the commitments made to each other in Ofcom’s code of practice, and to reiterate our support for the government’s ambition to be a leading global economy underpinned by [a] world-class, full-fibre network and 5G infrastructure.

“It is essential that parties engage professionally in open and constructive communications. The future needs of customers and the economy are too important for it to be otherwise.”

This morning’s statement was published by some participants and interested parties earlier this month, including Mobile UK and the National Farmers Union (NFU).

What’s going on?

Last month, the government published an upbeat statement on its commitment to full-fibre broadband and 5G, which revealed – by implication, at least – that the UK is at least 15 years away from achieving its full-fibre ambition.

And that’s under the government’s accelerated timescale. Without it – at current rates of progress – the UK is nearly a quarter century away from full-fibre coverage, putting it nearly bottom (26th) of the European high-speed broadband league.

As previously reported on Internet of Business, the UK is currently 30th in the world in terms of fixed-line speeds, and not even in the top 50 in mobile broadband. With only a tiny percentage of UK customers having access to Gigabit connectivity, the government’s claim to be delivering ‘superfast’ broadband to most of the UK does not stand scrutiny.

So what does this morning’s statement about the ECC mean, and what are the “problems” referred to that are affecting negotiations? (And has the government’s announcement merely drawn attention to an obstacle that most people didn’t know existed?)

Digging up problems

The ECC is a package of measures designed to speed up the deployment of the UK’s communications infrastructure, under the terms of the Communications Act.

Specifically, it confers rights on network and infrastructure providers to install and maintain apparatus on, under, and over public and private land, and should result – the government hopes – in simplified planning procedures.

Significantly, it gives operators the right to: inspect, maintain, and operate apparatus on that land; carry out works on it to enable apparatus to be installed and maintained; gain access to land to maintain or operate apparatus; connect to a power supply on the land; to “interfere with or obstruct a means of access to or from the land” (whether or not any communications apparatus is sited on, under, or over the land); and to lop or cut back any tree or other vegetation that could interfere with the apparatus.

In the event that agreement can’t be reached with the owner or occupier of any private land affected, the code allows an operator to apply to court to impose an agreement, which would confer the code right being sought, or bind the landowner/occupier to it.

Code powers also allow an operator to claim compensation if access to electronic communications apparatus has been obstructed.

Farming for the future

So it’s no surprise that, according to Internet of Business’ investigations, the “problems” referred to in the joint statement specifically relate to rural landowners’ objections – but the carefully worded statement has removed that sting in order, presumably, to leave the meaning ambiguous or neutral.

But the National Farmers Union has not been so cautious. In publishing the statement itself earlier this month, the NFU added these words to its commentary: “The joint statement should mean that telecommunications operators for broadband and mobile will be able to progress with delivering wider coverage and connectivity while behaving in a fair and reasonable manner towards landowners.”

The strong implication is that, in the NFU’s estimation, communications infrastructure providers (and/or their surveyors) have not been behaving in a fair and reasonable manner towards farmers – perhaps as they attempt to dig up private property, lop back trees or vegetation, and access power supplies in order to site masts or cables on their property.

The impression that battle lines have been drawn was reinforced by another participant, Mobile UK, earlier this month, when it added its own commentary – also omitted from the government’s version this morning.

“Achieving the government’s ambition of becoming a leading digital economy relies on boosting coverage and capacity, which can only be achieved if landowners work together with the telecoms sector, as per the reformed Electronic Communications Code and the Ofcom code of practice.”

In other words: let us dig up your land.

So, apart from obvious tensions about incursions onto private property to deliver the government’s vision of a full-fibre, 5G-enabled UK and ‘superfast’ broadband for all (despite the government’s preferred definition of 24Mbps being far from superfast, or even experienced by many customers), what else might farmers be angry about?

Going to extremes

The loss of European subsidies and seasonal workers notwithstanding, one irritation is that the government and communications providers appear to have gone from one extreme to the other, creating powers to bypass farmers yet again – after many years of ignoring the rural community completely in the digital age.

The NFU recently carried out a survey among over 800 members into their digital experiences. It found that only four percent of respondents had superfast broadband speeds (using the government’s definition) and only 15 percent had a reliable mobile phone signal on their land. Four percent had no access to the internet at all.

With 98 percent of farmers owning a phone, 58 percent a tablet, and 56 percent a smartphone, they are hardly Luddites: 90 percent said that having a reliable signal is important to their business, particularly as 61 percent are diversifying into new areas, such as siting office premises in disused buildings on their land.

However, the survey found that 70 percent of farming smartphone users had no access to 4G. Nearly as many, 69 percent, had internet access solely through ageing copper connections (as do most urban customers), and 58 percent reported download speeds of 2Mbps or less: some of the slowest broadband in the world.

But then again, some city centres face the same problem, as our recent report revealed.

The NFU says that access to the full spectrum of the digital world will help farmers to: raise yields; increase revenues; cut costs; increase productivity; improve record keeping; enable efficient management; reduce their environmental impact; improve the UK’s drive for self sufficiency; enable easy access to online applications; ensure farmers can access guidance and comply with regulations (raising the question of whether some farmers might simply have been unaware of the new Ofcom-mandated powers); and gain detailed access to local and international market information and customers.

Meanwhile, smart and precision farming methods can help minimise inputs and maximise food outputs in modern farming systems, it says.

Be careful what you wish for

So, it may be a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’ for the UK’s farmers as the government aims to speed the upgrade of the communications infrastructure by granting untrammelled access to their land – partly with the aim of improving internet access for them and other rural communities.

However, it is not as if the industry doesn’t appreciate the need to upgrade the infrastructure or to include them: indeed, the NFU has long been calling for it, for the good of farmers everywhere.

“Rural connectivity is essential in improving health and safety in farming,” says the NFU. “Universal access to good quality voice and text is a prerequisite. A review of the Mobile Infrastructure Project with further targeted intervention to accelerate ‘not-spot’ coverage is needed. Greater coverage will require more masts designed for rural areas.

“Offline solutions should be offered to those without access to infrastructure. The government cannot make effective savings through ‘Digital by Default’ until the infrastructure is in place to allow farmers and rural communities to fully participate.

“Ongoing research into fifth-generation (5G) technology should have a focus on agriculture to ensure we realise the full potential the technology can offer the industry.”

But “reasonable compensation is essential“, adds the organisation. “There need to be fair land deals for farmers and landowners, both in terms and conditions and rents when offering their land for telecoms projects.”

Again, the implication is that the financial Ts and Cs are not currently fair – at least in the NFU’s estimation. This may drive up the cost of the government’s mobile plans considerably, if they are forced to pay landowners more money – hardly an unprecedented state of affairs in British history, of course.

Given the disagreements referred to in this month’s joint statement on the ECC, money may indeed be the real sticking point, alongside infrastructure providers digging up their land – with or without their permission.

So: can the UK’s farmers really have it both ways – get reliable, high-speed connectivity without any pain? Are wealthy landowners and struggling farmers simply trying to force more money out of the cash-rich telecoms industry? Or are infrastructure providers using the ECC and Ofcom code to barge into farmland without permission, damaging crops and property – albeit with the public good in mind?

• If you have inside information about what’s happening in the field, please let Internet of Business know.

Either way, let’s hope that the joint statement is an indication that all parties can resolve their differences, given their shared aims. But the lesson for ministers seems to be: if you want to help a community, engage with it.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.