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Wayleave issues threaten to widen the digital divide

Recently, co-founder of Trenches Law, Terry Daniell, was interviewed by Fibre Provider on the topic of wayleave issues currently being faced. If you missed the article, catch it in full here...

Please provide a potted history of your company, when founded, by who, and the founding vision/mission.

Telecoms law specialist Trenches Law was established in 2017 by co-founders Sharon McDermott and Terry Daniell. Regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, it provides expertise across three core areas – wayleave support, legal counsel, and electric vehicle services.

Recognising the pace and complexity of the electronic communications industry – not least when it comes to Code powers and wayleaves – Trenches Law has filled an important market gap, and the organisation is nothing like the average legal practice.

Trusted by many of the UK’s most well-known operators – including WightFibre, toob, Ogi, Digital Infrastructure, ITS, F&W Networks and Virtual1 – alongside wholesalers and resellers, Hampshire-headquartered Trenches Law is well-connected and respected.

 

Please provide a potted history of your own career history and how your prior experience aids you in your current role.

As a senior telecoms professional with more than 25 years’ hands-on, commercial and management experience, I began my career as an outside broadcast engineer for BT and progressed to managing the service relationships with some of its largest customers.

More recently, I specialised in the wholesale sales channel at Virgin Media, where I was responsible for numerous relationships within the reseller, carrier and mobile sectors – including its biggest wholesale customer.

Having truly lived and breathed this industry for most of my working life – and with a genuine passion for keeping abreast of all-things-technology – as a co-founder of Trenches Law, I now set the agenda for our senior leadership team. I play a key role in the delivery of clients’ projects, no matter how complex, as well as the continued progression of our specialist business.

 

Please describe any previous projects you have worked on in collaboration with altnets?

We have a strong presence in the altnet space, and one particular project is our ongoing relationship with WightFibre. This organisation was our first turnkey client and, since our collaboration began in 2019, we’ve provided invaluable wayleave support.

Now, the team outsources all its wayleave applications to us for the whole of the Isle of Wight. As well as regular multi-dwelling unit (MDU), private road and shared drive wayleaves, we have also progressed agreements for cables installed on a riverbed and through a railway tunnel.

 

In a broad context please summarise your aims and objectives for 2022 and why they are significant?

It’s all about continued expansion. As a forward-thinking organisation, our goal is to achieve 200%-plus growth in revenue, which is something we achieved in 2021. We’re also committed to driving efficiency and will leverage our automation solution which is able to handle tens of thousands more wayleaves each week.

As we grow, we want to keep developing our existing relationships and become the ‘go-to’ organisation for clients who want legal counsel, wayleave support, and electric vehicles guidance. It’s important that they trust us and know that they can progress their essential builds swiftly and legally, no matter how complex the brief.

From an internal point of view, our current workforce has largely been working remotely and, moving forward, we’ll be adopting a hybrid model to give employees balance and flexibility.

 

The 2025 PSTN switch off is to a large extent dependent on enough fibre getting in the ground – do you think the UK’s infrastructure providers are on track?

Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. For towns and cities, I believe they will be fine in terms of infrastructure, but there is concern throughout the industry that rural communities won’t have access to full-fibre and therefore might get left behind.

It’s our responsibility as an industry to come together and do whatever we can to try and not make that a reality, and instead work on how to provide the same opportunities for everyone.

 

Has legislation gone far enough to help altnets remove barriers inhibiting the sharing of infrastructure?

Amendments to the Electronic Communications Code through the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill show that the UK Government want to legislate. Without this, the industry would struggle to hit its 2025 coverage targets.

For altnets in particular, there’s still some way to go in helping them to remove barriers. For us, this begins by improving the relationship between landowners and operators, and the way to do that is to continue educating on the topic of wayleave. That’s because, without an agreement in place, there won’t be a network upgrade which will stop progressive altnets in their tracks.

When that happens, the digital divide becomes even greater, and those hard-to-reach areas are more isolated as a result.

 

What more could be done by government to help altnets add pace to their rollouts?

While we welcome the Government’s plans to legislate, we’d also like them to delve a little deeper in how they will strategically help to provide hyper-speed broadband on a nationwide level.

 

The fibre provider marketplace is relatively young, so what does it lack as result of ‘immaturity’ and what can be done to accelerate its development?

I think across any sector when you’re coming into something fresh, there are bound to be mistakes made and lessons learnt. The vital thing for the marketplace to always remember is that they should never discount the importance of wayleaves.

If they stumble across requiring an agreement at a late stage, it can stop their project before it’s even really begun. That’s why we spend time speaking to clients and asking questions such as, ‘Do you have a register of interest on your website?’ If so, we can then drive the landlord relationship more quickly and minimise delays. Industry knowledge-sharing is vital in this respect.

 

What are your current priorities and what are the main challenges and opportunities associated with your priorities?

There’s no question that altnets have burst onto the scene and evolved the telecoms arena. They’re the ones that are driving Europe’s FTTH agenda and prepared to challenge the ‘broadband giants’ that have dominated this arena for decades.

While there’s a lot of talk around what will happen to altnets in the future, what’s vital right now

is to help them to get their fibre in the ground as quickly as possible. That’s where wayleaves come into play because without them, projects would come to a grinding halt.

Too long now the wayleave process has been cumbersome and complex in nature even though around 20-30% of properties require an agreement in place. If they’re overlooked, then costs can soon mount up – from around £950 in surveyor rates and nearly £1,500 per wayleave in traditional law firms’ fees. Add in the expense and resource constraints that come with planning and there’s soon going to be a hefty bill that wasn’t even part of the original plans.

That’s why we created an automation tool to roll-out tens of thousands more wayleaves each week to help our sector reduce lead times and costs and improve efficiency.

 

How many new services do you plan to offer in 2022?

We’re committed to bringing telecoms and innovation more in-line with one another so we’re always looking at ways in which we can make life a little easier for telecoms operators, developers and so on.

While things are developing, one of the areas we’re really excited to roll-out relates to the Telecoms Security Act and how we’re collaborating with automated software firm PacketFront to assist telecoms operators with their audits.

 

What are the factors that are influencing the evolution of your business in terms of portfolio development and market engagement?

We’ve spoken at length about how the rise of the electric vehicles market will have a huge impact on the environment. We’re witnessing a high demand for our wayleave expertise as commercial clients – who want to install EV charge points – have to have an agreement in place before they can even think about progressing their project.

If the EV sector wants to grow at pace – and the UK Government meet its ambitious green targets – wayleaves must be in place at the earliest opportunity. Collectively, we have a responsibility to care for our planet and greener initiatives will help us all be able to do that. To help, we’re providing landowners, housing associations, local authorities, EV providers and organisations with fleet vehicles all the expert guidance they need to ensure their applications are in place.

 

How can the UK’s altnets, as a community, best drive the market for full fibre?

Through innovation – whether that’s via their product or commercial offering. Again, it comes back to the sharing of knowledge on an industry-wide level so that there is relevant support and guidance in place to progress builds and network provision.

 

Where are the challenges to roll out, and are they reducing?

The rural challenge is certainly up there but I’d also put high-rise flats as something that requires a greater level of attention. Landlords are becoming more appreciative of the benefits of fibre but when it comes to a block of flats, there’s so much more that goes into it. Critical health and safety – particularly where cladding’s present – simply cannot be ignored and that leads to a much slower process in terms of project completion. The more these things are standardised, the better because then everybody can work towards the same goal with an effective framework in place.

 

Over the longer term, where is altnet value moving to, and how best can the altnet community capture that value?

The value of speed. We’re in a constant cycle of wanting more as a society, even back to when dial-up first came in, everyone jumped on it. It didn’t take long before something else was required that was able to get you online quicker and in a far simpler way.

With the UK’s ‘march to a gig’, it’ll only take a couple of years before a new application bursts onto the scene consuming that speed, and then people will want more. With fibre, while it’s not infinite bandwidth, you’ve got the opportunity to add more speed and keep on top of customer demand.

 

If you could transform any area of the UK altnet/fibre industry what would it be?

Our industry – like many others – is experiencing a war for talent. So, instead of looking for ‘the finished product’, organisations should be focused firstly on identifying the right attitudes and then training them up. It’s also important for organisations offer everything employees would ever need in order to stay, grow and develop in their roles.

It can be difficult for altnets just starting out on their journeys when they’re developing a workforce and are up against giant brands. However, providing security, flexibility and autonomy – as well as a great place to work and an exciting proposition – are all crucial in terms of retaining and attracting the very best people.

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