The COVID-19 pandemic has put a renewed focus on the UK’s telecoms sector, highlighting the potentially crucial role of 5G services as a driver of post-lockdown growth.
By triggering an accelerated shift to digital technologies and services, the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the importance of telecoms infrastructure to the UK economy. Increasingly sophisticated telecoms networks, including 5G services, will be needed to provide vital support to businesses and consumers as technology drives further behavioural changes in the post-pandemic world.
Data flows in lockdown
The COVID-19 lockdown saw the rapid advancement of a number of existing trends, such as increased home working, and the rising usage of online retail, entertainment and video conferencing platforms. Each of these has had a significant impact on the demands placed on broadband and mobile networks.
BT reported that daytime traffic on its fixed broadband network increased sharply by 35-60% in the early days of lockdown. In contrast, mobile network traffic was slightly down, as more people connected their mobile phones to their home WiFi. However, time spent on WiFi peaked in April, and it is now falling as people spend more time outside of their homes.
While the overall impact on mobile traffic has been relatively modest, some types of mobile data usage rose dramatically during lockdown. EE reported a 45% increase in traffic for apps used primarily to communicate, such as WhatsApp, Houseparty, Skype and Teams.
The UK’s communication networks have had the capacity to cope well with the extra pressures generated during lockdown. According to BT, while daytime traffic on its broadband network rose to a peak of 7.5Tb/s, this is still less than half its previous evening peak of 17.5Tb/s. OFCOM’s UK Home Broadband Performance report recorded only a very minor degradation of internet performance during lockdown, with slightly slower speeds and increased latency.
Nonetheless, the lockdown period has illustrated the need for robust communications networks that have the capacity to cope with both unexpected spikes in demand and long term shifts in behaviour and usage.
The roll-out of 5G technology is key to ensuring that the UK’s telecoms network infrastructure is future-ready. 5G promises to deliver quantum leaps in the speed, latency and capacity of mobile networks that will help to support the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT).
However, COVID-19 has caused some delays to the implementation of 5G, due partly to the impact of the virus on global technology supply chains. Meanwhile, outlandish and unfounded conspiracy theories linking the virus to 5G have led to arson attacks on mobile phone masts across the country.
A more fundamental obstacle to the 5G roll-out may be the government’s recent U-turn on its controversial decision to allow Huawei to supply 5G technology to UK networks. Buying new Huawei 5G equipment will be banned after the end of 2020, and existing equipment must be removed from the 5G network by 2027. The industry body MobileUK had previously argued that such restrictions on Huawei could result in an 18-24 month delay to the widespread availability of 5G in the UK.
Planning for the future
While the Huawei decision is a potential source of delays, the government is moving ahead with other measures aimed at accelerating the development of the physical infrastructure needed by 5G networks. In late August, ministers from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government wrote to all local authorities urging them to release public sector land and assets for the deployment of next-generation telecoms infrastructure.
The government has also recently published its response to the consultation on proposed reforms to permitted development rights (PDR) designed to speed up the roll-out of 5G infrastructure. It said that it would take forward in principle proposals to enable the deployment of radio equipment housing on land and the strengthening of existing masts without prior approval; and to enable higher new masts and the deployment of building-based masts nearer to highways subject to prior approval.
The proposed PDR reforms follow in the wake of the Electronic Communications Code (ECC), which came into force at the end of 2017 and was also intended to make it easier for network operators to install communications equipment in support of 5G.
However, the ECC has put a strain on the relationships between mobile network operators and the property owners who host their equipment, largely due to the introduction of a ‘no scheme’ valuation methodology that has greatly impacted rental levels. The ECC continues to generate uncertainty across the telecoms industry, and new case law is still emerging as ECC-related disputes pass through the courts.
Site control and access
COVID-19 has created additional challenges for telecoms property landlords around site control and access. Telecoms leases typically provide operators with the right to enter sites so that they can install equipment and carry out maintenance works; and landlords have needed to ensure that this access can be provided and managed safely in line with COVID-19 guidelines. This might be particularly difficult where sites are located close to homes or workplaces, or where access is only possible through occupied properties.
LSH’s Telecoms Site Access System has helped our public sector clients, in particular, to safely fulfil their lease obligations, even when most of their staff have been working from home. The portal allows landlords to maintain control of sites; ensuring that works can be completed with effective social distancing in place and that a full audit trail is maintained for track and trace purposes.
Since the beginning of lockdown, there have been significant increases in the frequency with which telecoms installations have been accessed in order to carry out essential maintenance and upgrades. For some public sector clients’ portfolios, the increase has been in the range of 30-40% in comparison with 2019. This reflects the growing demands being placed on telecoms infrastructure, and this trend is only likely to continue post-lockdown as sites will need to be used increasingly intensively to support our increased reliance on wireless connectivity and next-generation networks.
The practical difficulties created by the COVID-19 pandemic have added to the challenges of the telecoms property sector, which was already in the midst of a period of rapid change and uncertainty. Network operators and landlords are now forced to contend with maintaining the bio-security of properties and the safety of existing tenants, balanced against demands imposed by the ECC and the roll-out of 5G services.
While 5G has the potential to be a key driver of post-pandemic economic growth, it will require a huge amount of new infrastructure and real estate. This will create issues for policymakers, telecoms operators and the landlords whose properties are needed to host new 5G equipment. Against a rapidly shifting backdrop, it will be more important than ever that landlords seek good professional advice when reviewing their telecoms property portfolios.
Find out more
LSH’s dedicated Telecoms consultancy team has extensive experience of managing telecoms sites and portfolios nationwide, and a proven track record in securing the best deals for our clients.
Whether you own a single property or a large portfolio hosting telecoms infrastructure, we can help you meet all current challenges while unlocking added value across your real estate assets.
For more information about our Telecoms Site Access System, please read here or contact Mark Walters.
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