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This paper is no longer being updated by the Library. For updates following the 2017 Digital Economy Act reforms, see the Library briefing paper: Building telecommunications infrastructure (CBP 9156). 

The Electronic Communication Code

The Electronic Communications Code, which facilitates the installation and maintenance of electronic communications networks, has long been considered in need of reform.

The Code enables electronic communication network providers to install and maintain electronic communication networks by giving network operators certain rights. Under the Code, telephone operators are permitted to construct infrastructure on public land and have rights to install equipment on private land. With regards to private land, the Code requires that operators contact the land owner before installing equipment but also provides that when permission is not given by the land owner an operator can apply to the County Court to allow them to undertake the work.

Law Commission Review

In 2013 the Law Commission published a review examining the Code, which contained over fifteen pages of recommendations to reform it. These included setting a clear definition of code rights and how a revised Code should define “electronic communications apparatus”. The Commission also recommended that any attempt at reforming the Code should start again with a “clean sheet of paper”.

Temporary Amendments 2013

Temporary amendments (lasting five years) were made to the Code in 2013 as part of the Growth and Infrastructure Act. These amendments were not primarily intended to reform the Code but were designed to promote economic growth by speeding up the deployment of broadband infrastructure.

Withdrawn Infrastructure Bill Amendment

In early 2015 the Coalition Government tabled an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill (now the Infrastructure Act 2015) which would have substantially reformed the Code along the lines of the Law Commission’s recommendations. The amendment was later dropped amid criticism from stakeholders.

A nine-week consultation on reforms to the Code then followed, and closed on 30 April 2015. The Government’s objective was “to provide a modern and robust legal framework for the rollout of electronic communications apparatus”.

New Proposals for Reform

In the Queen’s Speech on 18 May 2016 the Government indicated in would bring forward a Digital Economy Bill that will contain reform of the Electronic Communications Code. The proposed reforms follow many of the recommendations of the Law Commission’s review. However, reforms to the system of valuation of land go further and are likely to reduce the rent paid to landowners by mobile network operators to site equipment on private land. The Government estimates that these changes to the Electronic Communications Code will result in more than £1 billion of savings for the communications sector over a 20-year period.

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