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Embracing small cell connectivity

The importance of strong local authority partnerships.

Ali Akhtar
Head of Acquisitions, BT Wholesale

In an era where technology permeates every facet of our lives, connectivity is a necessity.

From individuals working remotely to governmental bodies monitoring environmental concerns like pollution, the reliance on technology – and, therefore, connectivity – has never been more pronounced.


At the heart of this evolving landscape, local authorities stand as the linchpin between the communities and the infrastructure that powers connectivity. They are responsible for delivering better outcomes for their residents, working diligently to narrow the digital divide. 

The localised benefits of coverage and capacity

A simple and effective way to increase digital infrastructure is through small cells. These are mobile radio cells that help to provide greater network coverage in densely populated areas. They are implemented where it is often impractical to install larger mobile masts or where an offloading capability is required, such as in dense urban areas where there is increased data traffic. BT Wholesale is the largest provider of this technology in the UK, working with MNOs, Government, local authorities, and other industry partners towards better deployment procedures.


Being implemented to support the macro layer, the continued rollout of small cells on street-based assets like lampposts is enhancing capacity ensuring everyone has even more access to faster, reliable connectivity.


Councils are already starting to see the benefits. Take the work that BT Wholesale has done with Leeds City Council, Croydon and London Borough Southwark who are early adopters of small cell technology on a widescale basis. The projects have elevated communities, with Leeds being the largest gigabit and 5G-capable city outside of London, whilst the deployments in Southwark and Croydon support changes in behaviours, such as hybrid working.


The Government are on board with making this digital vision a reality too, with the Digital Connectivity Infrastructure Accelerator (DCIA) and the more recent 5G Innovation Regions. This provides councils and technology providers with access to over £40 million of funding to develop tomorrow’s wireless communication networks, with a specific focus on exploring how public assets (publicly owned buildings and street furniture) can be used to support the development and deployment of mobile communications and small cells. 


This is a welcomed move as small cells act as catalysts for development across regions. By boosting connectivity, they foster inward investments by attracting new businesses into an area and increasing employment opportunities for local residents, as well as the retention of business rates for local authorities.


What’s more, they support new ways of working, enabling flexibility and hybrid working. They also  enable lone working and public safety by ensuring those that need to work alone, such as social workers, are able to stay in contact. People can be connected from anywhere, and live in a greener, more inclusive and productive place. Ultimately, small cells provide a unique way to enhance local communities towards better connectivity and prosperity.

Navigating the legal landscape

While the benefits of deploying this technology are clear, the ability to deploy quickly and within cost can be difficult to obtain with the processes and permissions feeling like traversing through a maze for both local authorities and operators. Mass deployment has previously been held back due to the complexity, planning hurdles, expensive concession models and inconsistent practices.


However, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s now a lot easier for councils, operators and infrastructure providers to agree delivery protocols and terms. For example, the updated Electronic Communications Code (2017) curtailed councils’ reliance on concession contracts as a way to enable small cell deployments in a local area. Instead, the establishment of nonexclusive Open Access agreements now offer both industry and local authorities a more straight forward way of working.


Councils such as Leeds, Liverpool, and Glasgow have adopted this approach and are reaping the rewards. It means that assets are not overvalued, and the community can benefit regardless of what network they are on, improving digital inclusion and economic growth.


BT Wholesale has been at the forefront in driving the development of small cell technology and their delivery across the UK. We have bilateral agreements and strong relationships with local authorities and work closely with council services, such as street lighting engineers, to ensure knowledge around our deployment protocols are understood and approved.


We know that councils have stretched resources and obtaining agreement in the first place is a complex process. That’s why we are dedicated to streamlining deployment and ensuring it’s as smooth, easy, and cost-effective as possible for all involved. 

Future-proofing optimism about small cells

While the delivery process can be complicated, local authorities are now embracing telecoms as a means to harness the benefits deployments can bring to their local areas.


However, there is more that can be done to truly connect for good, and that lies in cooperation between the relevant parties. This includes ensuring dialogue is established and maintained between councils and industry. For example, there needs to be a greater understanding as we move towards 5G ‘standalone’ which promises to unlock new internet of things (IoT) capabilities and services for local authority provision, businesses and households.


There also needs to be an understanding that the 2017 ‘code’ does not provide a panacea for the industry – which may mean we need to look at legislation again. For example, agreeing processes and timeframes pertinent to small cell deployments that works for both industry and the asset owner, as well as providing guidance on Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts.


Ultimately, we need to agree on a broad set of terms that are mutually beneficial and put communities first. The good news is that we are going in the right direction, but we now need to be on the fast track if the benefits of 5G are to be realised. BT Wholesale is essential to this; think of us as conductors orchestrating a symphony, ensuring every voice is heard. We are reliable, experienced, and fiercely optimistic about the future of small cells and the impact they can have on future generations.

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