Landowners face compulsory purchase orders to improve mobile coverage

The changes are designed by the Government to encourage investment in network improvements, amid concern that the uncertain cost of building new masts is holding back coverage, reports The Telegraph.

Under the new rules, mobile operators and independent mast owners such as Arqiva and Wireless Infrastructure Group, will be able to apply to the courts to force land owners to sell space for a mast at the same price any other buyer would pay.

The industry has complained that in situations where there are few suitable sites for infrastructure in an area it can be held to “ransom” by the landowner and charged multiples of the market rent. In such circumstances operators and mast companies sometimes elect not to build, leaving coverage blackspots that the Government is seeking to eliminate.

While the legislation mostly targets rural areas, it could also apply in cities.

Whitehall sources said the new powers would put the mobile industry on more level terms with water and power companies, who have long been able to make compulsory purchases to provide essential services.

It is hoped by senior industry figures that the powers will be used rarely and act as a backstop to encourage landlords to enter commercial negotiations on reasonable terms. Problems are already quite rare, one mobile source said.

The new legislation, part of a new digital economy bill, is likely to prove controversial but comes after the Prime Minister said politicians had been wrong to stand in the way of mobile mast building.

Ed Vaizey, the communications minister, said: “What was once seen as a luxury is now a basic need, and people expect to have access to fast broadband at home, irrespective of where they live, and use their mobile devices anywhere they go.”

The new power could also aid plans to expand BT’s EE network so it is capable of replacing the emergency services radio system, a contract the Government claims will save taxpayers £1m per day.

The digital economy bill is also expected to make it harder for telecoms companies to sue Ofcom.

The tougher legal hurdles could help the regulator set the terms of forthcoming sales of mobile spectrum to help Three and O2 with less fear of a legal challenge from BT and Vodafone. Three’s owner CK Hutchison said its low allocation was a key motivation behind its failed attempt to buy O2, which Ofcom opposed and was blocked.

The regulator has since said it will aim to support competition in the market via auctions of mobile airwaves.