Interview: Do councils have a role to play in 5G rollouts?

Local authorities have always played a role in the deployment of mobile technologies, but they have only recently started exploring what they could do as spectrum holders. Collaboration lead for 5G RuralDorset, Dave Happy, recently spoke to Policy Tracker about provision of mobile services in rural areas.

Councils across the UK are facing massive funding problems, while at the same time the demand for higher 5G frequencies is increasing, says David Happy, managing director at Telint and project collaboration lead for the public project 5G RuralDorset.

In rural and remote areas there is a general and urgent need to get better provision of mobile services. If nobody else is doing it, then it really looks like something councils could get on with

“There seems to be a meeting point here,” he told PolicyTracker. “Regulators have the spectrum, councils need the income and operators cannot afford to provide coverage everywhere.”

Ongoing projects

Irish local authorities, for example, have joined efforts with the country’s research centre for future networks and communications, CONNECT, to issue a discussion document that proposes putting city administrators at the centre of Ireland’s 5G roadmap.

The document, which was compiled following a survey of mobile operators, telecoms vendors and city authorities, says that both national and local government must be proactive and coordinated. It proposes a working group to speed up the deployment of 5G, including public and private networks.

“Local authorities and state bodies need to be more proactive in how they can leverage their assets to support 5G,” the document says. “This needs to go beyond the current situation which deals with ad hoc requests to a more structured model where the local authority facilitates access to assets in a manner which is open and transparent for operators, as well as for users, and citizens in general.”

Ireland is proposing a neutral host model to be deployed across the country. This means local authorities would work with a facilitating entity that manages small cells affixed to city assets over a shared infrastructure model. “It is an attractive model from a local authority perspective seeing that the neutral host network will rely on single equipment and devices compared to multiple such installations,” the document says. “This is especially true in high footfall areas of cities and towns where there may be a limited number of assets for installation, and potential ‘visual pollution’ from too many deployments.”

Glasgow city council in Scotland has also set up a “telecoms unit and portal” in a bid to improve the authority’s engagement with the telecoms industry. It hopes to make it easier for the city to secure investment in 5G.

The Glasgow initiative establishes a transparent framework for pricing for access to council assets and eases applications from telecoms companies for access to these assets and the deployment of infrastructure, in addition to developing standardised legal documentation to govern such access.

Councils turning into spectrum holders

Happy claims that local governments could potentially gain access to spectrum and exploit new opportunities in urban but mostly rural areas. “In rural and remote areas there is a general and urgent need to get better provision of mobile services,” he says. “If nobody else is doing it, then it really looks like something councils could get on with.”

He adds: “The notion that they are not going to try is wrong. It would make sense to try to manage the spectrum in certain areas. They may not be the perfect operators but there are a lot of wholesale providers … and councils have a broader social agenda.”

Bournemouth, for instance, has already put in a request to Ofcom for trial licences in the 26 GHz band to create a 5G network to support businesses and individuals. Happy says that controlling spectrum would not be a “massive jump” for local authorities and that they already outsource a wide range of services such as rubbish collection. Current spectrum regulations would enable this, he adds.

The industry is wrong always to assume that the only suitable spectrum for rural areas is low-frequency spectrum, he adds. Happy foresees many applications that “would be enabled if people didn’t have to pay for the spectrum in the same way” which could make a real difference in the farming world, like a connected fence post.

Who would provide these localised services, he asks. “Councils need the money, councils control the assets and the councils are probably best placed to know the planning history of an individual site.”