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Mobile infrastructure: private investment and public policy
O2’s CEO, Ronan Dunne, talks about the importance of mobile infrastructure policy.
Last Tuesday afternoon in Westminster Hall – one of Parliament’s quieter backwaters – MPs debated issues of importance that fundamentally influence the quality of service that the mobile industry can offer its customers. Although the occasion lasted only 30 minutes and was modestly attended, it was good to see public policy makers ask themselves the question, ‘What can we do to help the mobile industry’s £5bn investment programme deliver optimum coverage, to as many people as possible, as quickly as possible?’
This is a much more progressive approach from politicians than simply haranguing the industry to work harder and faster, while declining themselves to pull the policy levers than that would enable it to do so.
O2’s own research tells us that 94% of people rate network reliability as the most important consideration when choosing a network – ahead of all other factors. The number of smartphone users has doubled in the last five years to 66% of the adult population and most of them use their smartphone to go online when they are out and about and when they are at home. Indeed, the smartphone has overtaken the laptop as the most popular device for going online.
As an industry, we do ‘get’ this stuff, which is why we are investing £5bn in upgrading our networks and delivering 4G. This isn’t investment by government – it’s private sector investment by an industry whose success has been built on understanding the needs of its customers and constantly striving to meet them.
Public policy can help maximise the pace and impact of this investment for consumers, as last week’s Westminster Hall debate highlighted. It was encouraging, for example, to hear Ed Vaizey, the Digital Economy Minister, agree with the view offered by Graham Stuart MP that “having taller masts is a cost-effective way for operators to increase their coverage”. We hope that the current planning consultation will lead to a reformed policy that allows this to happen.
We were also heartened to hear strong ministerial support for reform of the Electronic Communications Code, which has been untouched for over 30 years. All too often the Code leaves the mobile industry unable to speedily respond to consumer need, as operators have to negotiate an obstacle course of ransom rents and lengthy negotiation with landlords when we need access to a mast site to make repairs and improvements.
Finally, I was interested to hear that Ed Vaizey plans “to revisit the Mobile Infrastructure Project”, which has fallen way short of its own targets. I suspect MIP has been a chastening experience for government, as it has come up against many of the frustrations that the mobile industry has to contend with on a regular basis. “I have been slightly astonished”, said the Minister, “that organisations such as the National Trust have point blank refused to have masts on their land and planning authorities have turned down applications for masts despite local communities wanting them.” Welcome to our world, Minister!
The GSMA recently reported that new mobile technologies, powered by 4G, will drive European GDP up from €500 billion in 2014 to €600 billon by 2020, while average monthly data usage is set to grow from 1GB to 6GB within the same period. The mobile industry in Europe supports 3.8 million jobs and contributes about €84 billion in taxes. It is leading digital innovation in mobile commerce, smart manufacturing, smart homes and smart health, while mobile technology’s role in the Internet of Things will stimulate growth from 68 million machine to machine connections in 2015 to 182 million by 2020.
The UK mobile industry is undertaking a record level of network investment to ensure that all consumers can fully benefit from this digital transformation. That’s what our customers want and what, therefore, we are determined to deliver. Public policy can help or hinder the industry in this mission for UK consumers. A reformed Electronic Communications Code, a more effective MIP and taller masts can – as Ed Vaizey noted in last week’s Westminster Hall debate – “make the difference”. Only together can we make this happen and give customers and citizens the Digital Britain they deserve.