Cities block 5G kiosks after doing rival deals
Image credit: Mark Ballard
Public authorities that have blocked British Telecom’s rollout of next-generation phone kiosks have set up rival street comms infrastructure from which they get a share of the profit.
An E&T investigation has found those authorities with the greatest prospect of making millions of pounds from recent deals with rival comms companies have been most opposed to the BT rollout. They do not take a share of money made from BT’s infrastructure.
Some have refused all attempts BT has made to implement ‘InLink’ phone kiosks as part of its rollout of a national comms network – even though UK planning law does not allow them to oppose it.
UK law gives comms firms special privileges to install network equipment on public streets to stop city planning authorities standing in the way, because network infrastructure is deemed a national priority. It gives city authorities power only to stop equipment being installed in certain places, if they think it would congest a street or be unsightly in a place of historic or natural beauty.
Yet city planners’ opposition to next-generation phone kiosks has been total in places such as the City Of London, which did a deal last year to build a competing infrastructure with BT rivals Telefónica O2 and Vodafone, from which it expected to make £18.5m.
Westminster City Council made a High Court claim for legal powers to refuse phone boxes in September, after it did a deal to make £22m from its own street comms infrastructure, and refused all 24 applications BT had made to install rival comms equipment.
Coventry City Council opposed all 37 BT applications it processed last year, while setting up a competing deal with comms infrastructure provider InTechnology, and like most authorities that have done such deals, kept the financial details secret.
The London Borough of Islington approved all 11 applications BT made in 2017. But after publishing a ‘smart city’ strategy in January, including plans to boost its own street-comms infrastructure and make £2m-a-year, refused all 23 applications BT made in 2018.
Many city councils struck “concession” deals in the last six years that gave a comms provider exclusive rights to put wireless and mobile ‘small cell’ transmitters on municipal street furniture such as lamp posts. The provider rented its network to mobile phone companies, and the council took a cut.
Councils made the concessions deliver free public Wi-Fi services to main streets as well, and hoped they would cover the cost of laying fibre-optic network cables. But take-up was poor and some councils reported they failed to make money.
BT InLink phone kiosks are built into large panels that display advertising to raise money and cover the cost of its own fibre rollout. BT said it planned to install small cells in its kiosks next year. Its kiosks deliver free public Wi-Fi at 1Gbit/s speeds peak, while users typically get connections at 400Mbit/s.
Duncan Wall, business development director for Arqiva, which did most concession deals with UK cities, said its public Wi-Fi service typically delivered 2Mbit/s speeds. It was trying to increase it to 8Mbit/s.
Financial statements last year by the London Borough of Camden, which helped establish the concession model with Arqiva in 2012, said its ambition to make money from the deal had been made “unachievable” by competition from other sources of free Wi-Fi, and 4G. Camden hoped to make £3.5m from its contract, but it appeared to be losing money. It has appealed to the government for powers to stop BT and other companies installing phone kiosks.
Furqan Alamgir, CEO of Connexin, a firm that installs fibre-based public comms infrastructure in cities including Hull and Newcastle, said providers strove to dominate street comms infrastructure where they operated so they could make enough money to cover their rollout costs.
“For us to have this infrastructure – to spend millions of pounds – we need [exclusivity] or our business model wouldn’t work,” he said.
He said mobile operators preferred doing business with providers who had a dominant network covering a whole city, to make it worth their while.
Dr Edward Oughton, a leading researcher of national 5G infrastructure at the University of Oxford, said if one comms provider built a wireless and small-cell infrastructure and a rival built a network covering the same area, it would undermine their business model.
“Your capital is at risk if another operator comes in and takes the reward,” he said. “It’s going to have a significant impact.”
But he said: “BT are clearly going to scale up so that operators deal with them nationally and it starts to kill off the idea of their being small, regional, small cell providers.”
Professor Steven Temple, a reputed comms expert at the University of Surrey, said: “Wi-Fi is an absolute nightmare. It’s so over-provided they are all grinding each other [out]. All speeds grind down to a crawl.”
A spokesman for the London Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham, which refused most applications BT made to install InLinks last year, said: “Any deal that provides us revenue to pay for frontline services is better than one that doesn’t.”
Hammersmith had been unhappy with BT’s rollout but had limited powers to oppose it, he said. It’s own concession put discreet comms equipment on lamp posts, whereas BT’s kiosks were large and with big screens.
A spokesman for London’s Hackney council said it only opposed phone kiosks when its planning officers felt they would clutter or spoil a street.
Spokespeople for Birmingham and Islington insisted planners considered each application on its merits on terms set by law.
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