UK government calls on local authorities to help in roll-out of gigabit broadband and 5G

© Flickr/cc-licence/Bridget McKenzie

© Flickr/cc-licence/Bridget McKenzie

  • Administration bent on centralisation suddenly discovers local competency
  • Councils to appoint "digital champions". They'll be the ones with the targets on their backs
  • "Barrier-busters" will remove obstacles to roll-out
  • New tools will "quell quack theories about 5G"

At long last the UK government has decided that it just may be advantageous to all and sundry were it to call on local authorities, councils and municipalities to help accelerate and support the roll-out of gigabit broadband and 5G mobile connectivity. It seems that in Downing Street the penny has finally dropped that broadband will be central to economic recovery as Covid-19 restrictions are slowly and partially lifted and a sort of semi-normality is established.

It's welcome news but it has come far too late. Throughout the pandemic the centralising-obsessed Johnson government has determinedly refused to involve local government properly in the testing, tracking and tracing of Covid cases, despite their deep knowledge of local conditions and proven expertise in managing medical and other emergencies. The result has been a shambles of U-turns, flummery, mixed-messages, missed targets, buck-passing, scapegoating and contradictory advice that has cost many lives and untold sums of taxpayer money.

They say it's the Americans who don't do irony but here, where Brits are drip-fed gallons of irony-bru from the day they are born, it is staggeringly ironic that the British government, which has taken unto itself many of the powers traditionally wielded by local administrations, now suddenly wants them to come to its aid. The UK is still without a national Covid track and trace system that is fit for purpose, and has denied local authorities the opportunity to run their own but now it wants to involve them in smoothing the way to the deployment of state-of-the-art comms technologies. 

The UK's Digital Infrastructure Minister, Matt (Fingers) Warman and the man-boy Minister for Local Government, Communities and Regional Growth, Simon Clarke, have written to local authorities to urge them to appoint a ‘digital champion’ who "will work across multiple teams to ensure a cohesive digital infrastructure strategy and encouraging authorities to use central government’s dedicated ‘barrier-busting’ team which is charged with removing the obstacles to rollout." You can be sure that in the event of yet another cock-up it'll be the "digital champion" who'll get it in the neck rather than some politician.

What "barrier-busting" actually means here is the co-opting of local government to apply the latest "advice" on land access and valuations to ensure that new infrastructure can be deployed quickly and cheaply (as far as land rental is concerned anyway). Councils will also have a propaganda role in countering the flood of disinformation, conspiracy theory and technophobia that has been posted on social media since the country entered lockdown back in March. They will be sent a "plain English guide" to help them answer questions and concerns raised by the public. 

The spate of disinformation linking the building of 5G masts to the spread of the corona virus has resulted in vandalism, the destruction of 5G antennas and base stations and increased opposition to planning applications for broadband equipment. Matt Warman has now decided that “Councils have a vital role to play in the rollout of digital infrastructure and while there is good work going on up and down the country, there is more we can do. We want to help people get access to fast and reliable connectivity. It is a top priority for this government." That's why he is providing "new guidance and advice to help break down some of the barriers to rollout" as well as dishing out "the tools they need to quell quack theories about 5G." I'll bet that'll be a right riveting read.

Also weighing-into the debate is Public Health England (PHE), observing that 5G should have "no consequences to public health". There's more irony here. PHE is a whipping-boy executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care and a "distinct organisation with operational autonomy". Nonetheless it is being shut down by the government because of alleged and unproven mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Free-up planning regulations but don't annoy the nimbys

Hamish Macleod, the Director of Mobile UK, the trade association representing Britain's 'Big Four" mobile network operators, EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, commented, "The updated valuation guidance published by the Government will give councils the confidence to bring wider community benefits, such as enhanced mobile coverage, to their communities. From an industry perspective, it means adding public assets, often located in ideal locations for radio signal broadcast, into the mix to assist in the rapid rollout of world-class mobile connectivity. Councils are uniquely placed within their communities to identify the needs of residents and businesses, including their demand for faster and more reliable digital connectivity."

Basically, telcos have to secure rights to place infrastructure on public sector land and buildings, but, in the past, it was usually a slow and bureaucratic process that took too much time and cost a lot. The operators frequently complained that the system was putting a brake on the speedy deployment of new broadband technologies and they were missing targets as a result. Now though, with Boris Johnson yet again promising to make a bonfire of red tape and regulation, councils will be expected to pass technology infrastructure plans more or less on the nod - often in the face of monied and influential 'county set' opposition.

These noisy, well-connected and determined shire nimbys are true-blue Conservative voters and the government will have to be very careful not to alienate them by allowing 5G masts to be deployed too close to their boundaries, such as public sector verges adjacent to their lovingly tended topiary. Still, if the privet turns brown and the leaves drop off, it'll be handy to have the local authority to blame.

Trouble looms because councils are being required to manage two mutually incompatible objectives. First they have to obtain "best value" where land access agreements are concerned whilst also taking cognisance of "non-monetary benefits". This includes improved broadband access as more and more people now work from home and for widely distributed small- and medium-sized enterprises to trade online.

Since last December's General Election, the Johnson administration has, to date, made eleven (count them) screaming, tyre-burning, gearbox-stripping, handbrake policy turns, the Huawei 5G debacle being a particularly inglorious case in point, but also encompassing the Covid lockdown, pandemic security measures, travel restrictions, examinations and education. It's a text-book case of how not to manage a crisis. So, in extremis and for a while, local authorities are to be trusted where gigabit broadband and 5G are concerned but still ignored, and indeed denigrated, where public health is concerned. How long will it be before things go wrong and council leaders get the blame? TelecomTV will let you know.

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