Examination of Witness

Part of Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 3:38 pm on 15th March 2022.

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Till Sommer:

Yes, sure. The Bill basically does three different things: it is access to third-party land in rural areas; it is the alternative dispute resolution mechanism on a voluntary basis; and the third area is upgrade rights. Upgrade rights, as you heard from the previous panel, is one area where there is slight disagreement because, depending on how you fix that, it might give one set of providers a competitive advantage over the others. For that reason, I do not want to go into too much detail there.

At the basic level, we want more upgrade rights, because it helps to use the infrastructure that is already there, rather than digging up the road again, putting up new telegraph poles or, as was said, just not doing something at all because the money is not there to build in that area if you cannot reuse the infrastructure. Beyond that, I do not want to go into too much detail, or I will get into trouble with my members and they will all talk to you separately.

I will take the other two areas, including access to third-party land. We have a few members who are specifically focused on rural areas. They are effectively going at the moment where Openreach does not have a strong build. They are very ambitious. They have told us quite early on that this Bill is game-changing for them. Access to third-party land in rural areas is simply the one thing that will unlock additional properties in their roll-out plans.

The reason for that is that this part of the Bill effectively mirrors something that was done a year ago for multi-dwelling units in urban areas, because it looks at a problem that our members face; I will use a very simple example. Let us say they want to reach a rural hamlet and there are three routes to it—one across a farmer’s field, one across a railway line and one across a hilly area. The most economical route is across the farmer’s field, but that field might be owned by someone who is not living in the UK, or who does not look at their emails or their post; that farmer just does not respond. At the moment, there is no mechanism to get any sort of forward movement in that situation.

So, what happens is that the provider either moves on, because they decide that it is not economically viable to take one of the other routes to that hamlet, or they say, “Actually, no, we do go across the railway line, but we descope parts of the hamlet. The money just isn’t there any more to connect every single house. It’s still economically viable to go there, round the field, but it doesn’t quite reach the whole village.”

Third-party land access provides a mechanism to get access to wayleaves, or access to land, for a limited period in those very limited circumstances. That will unlock those properties that at the moment are at risk of missing out. I am sure some of you will have seen in the past an announcement from a broadband provider—you might have even done a press release with them—saying that they are building out to x number of houses in the constituency. Then, after two years—after the roll-out programme is done—the number is not quite there. Quite often the reason for that is because the build has been more difficult than expected, there have been unresponsive landlords and the money that was allocated for that area does not quite match the ambitions.

It is worthwhile keeping in mind that roll-out is privately funded. There is Government support for the hardest-to-reach areas and we appreciate that, but outside of that it is privately funded infrastructure, with a return on investment over 20 or 30 years. We need to make an investment case. The companies, our members, need to make the investment case for their investors, for their shareholders and for their owners, that they will at some point get that money back. That is why we sometimes need to make those difficult decisions where stuff is being descoped. That is why the Bill is so important; it helps avoid those areas and unlock that bottleneck.

I mentioned alternative dispute resolution; some of our members are a bit sceptical about it, and that is largely because they roll out on a very large scale. Having to deal with thousands and thousands of ADR processes can be quite daunting, time-intensive and costly. For that reason, we believe it is good that it is done on voluntary basis, with the clear incentive provided in the Bill that the tribunal will take ADR into account. It will help a lot when it comes to negotiations with large landowners; that can include local authorities, where our members often have to negotiate a headlease or a head wayleave agreement. That can be super-complicated, because there is part of the local authority that is really keen on getting broadband, but the people dealing with the wayleave stuff do not really care because it is not in their portfolio. There are then mixed messages coming from the local authority. On the one hand they are saying, “Can you please roll out broadband as quickly as possible,” but on the other hand there are people saying, “It takes another year to negotiate the agreement.” ADR will be really useful to make progress in those very large wayleave cases.