Who’d want to be their infrastructure partner?
A campaigning national newspaper in the UK could destroy trust in mobile network operators (MNOs) among consumers and future 5G business partners. Each exposé by the paper suggests the MNOs are ignoring a toothless regulator, mistreating loyal customers and exploiting legal loopholes to renege on their rent agreements with infrastructure hosts.
In the latest exposé, the Mail on Sunday found that telecom suppliers including BT, Sky and TalkTalk give up to £110 worth in perks to new customers but not giving the same value benefits to existing users. This follows years of complaints from the public, after which the UK’s telcos agreed with regulator Ofcom in 2019 that loyal customers would not be denied deals used to entice new customers. However this has not happened, say campaigners. “Most broadband providers are now playing this game, offering significant voucher incentives but only to new customers,” said Greg Marsh at consumer finances firm Nous.
Corporate social responsibility?
The latest accusation of malpractice comes only two weeks after UK telcos were accused to exploiting a legal loophole from 2014 to impose above-inflation increases on broadband and mobile-phone bills. A spokesman for BT Consumer, which owns EE and Plusnet, said only that it: “meets Ofcom’s requirements as new and existing customers are offered the same price for their broadband.” As mobile network operators seek sites for masts, a more damaging action could be their treatment of their infrastructure partners. Yet another Mail on Sunday expose found that mast companies are exploiting legislation, intended aid the construction of 5G infrastructure, in order to dodge rent they agreed to pay to communities that agreed to host their equipment.
These acts have inspired the emergence of lobby groups, such as Protect & Connect, which could further damage the branding of mobile operators. Protect & Connect represents landowners trying to restore some of their lost income. ‘‘Rental cuts of up to 90 per cent have had a devastating effect on thousands of smallholders, farmers, local councils, churches, sport clubs and small businesses. It’s time to… demand a fairer deal,” chairwoman Anna Turley told the Mail on Sunday. “We all want high-speed digital connectivity, but it is wrong to make local communities pay for it. Telecoms companies are enormously profitable and have been granted a generous subsidy to roll out high-speed networks.” Campaigners say telecoms firms slashed their agreed rents by up to 90%.
Derek Spence, 63, told the Mail on Sunday that he was offered £250 rent by EE instead of the usual £6,000 for space at Aylesbury Rugby Football Club. “I told them to go away and that we didn’t want the mast any more but they pretty much said: like it or lump it. To be told you have to accept this and you have no rights to evict us from your site is bullying. We just want a fair deal.” One landowner claimed their rent was slashed from £5,000 a year to just £10, while another’s went down from more than £1,000 to £37. UK MNOs, were allowed to cut their rent thanks to a 2017 law change originally intended to speed up the rollout of the 5G network. Rent valuations were ‘reclassified’ to let firms spend more money on upgrading their networks in rural areas with patchy signals, landowners say they were not consulted about the reduced income. Now internet access campaigners want more changes that could cut rents further.
The Landlord and Tenant Act 1954, which applies to most of the UK’s 33,000 mobile phone masts, means mobile phone companies are legally sitting tenants. The UK’s MNOs have used this to withhold the payments they offered to their business partners. “These landowners are now discovering the real corporate and social values of the mobile brands,” said one critic. UK telcos, represented by the group Speed Up Britain, said the Government had made it clear that changes to the Electronic Communications Code would push rents down. The average loss in rent has been between 40 and 60%, it said. It could have been much harder on the people it was depriving of rent: “This is typically a better settlement for landowners than might be expected if the new rules were implemented to the letter,” said a spokesman.