LAND JOURNAL

How telecoms SME handles demand and legislation

With connectivity a priority but policy creating challenges, Land Journal talks to the MD of a surveying firm about working in the UK telecoms market

Author:

  • Tom Gallivan

31 October 2023

Moine Mhor National Nature Reserve, near Lochgilphead, Argyll, Scotland

Land Journal: Can you tell us about your company, DOT Surveying?

Tom Gallivan: I started DOT in 2004. We are in the wireless telecoms sector and our main work is finding and managing telecoms sites for our clients. There are estimated to currently be more than 50,000 telecoms sites in the UK. Most of these sites are rented on a leasehold basis. 

Telecoms is a relatively large and highly specialist market. We are a chartered surveying company regulated by RICS, employing around 30 personnel across the UK, and ten of those are chartered surveyors. We also have a town planning function run by a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

LJ: What are the potential market opportunities for your practice?

TG: Although wireless telecoms is our specialty, we are at heart a development company. Our clients are mainly large acquisition, design and construction companies working directly for the UK telecoms operators. We identify land and negotiate the rights for telecoms operators to occupy the land. 

Further to this we get the planning consent, taking them through to legal completion and then handing them back to our clients. We also carry out lease renewals, rent reviews, assignments and upgrades on the existing network.

Even though we are in telecoms, the sector works with a similar model to other types of development. We have been involved in renewables – solar and onshore wind turbines. The COVID pandemic underlined the demand for better connectivity, and so this along with the rollout of 5G technology has kept the practice busy.

Another area where we are increasingly asked to bid for work is fibre and the underground wayleaves for telecoms lines. This is a huge area, which dwarfs the wireless industry in the UK.

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LJ: Can you talk about the challenges the telecoms market presents for an SME such as yours?

TG: One mantra I've carried with me throughout my career is: turnover is vanity, profit is sanity and cash is king. And with SMEs it's doubly – even triply – so. I've seen many otherwise healthy SMEs fail because of poor cash flow management.

There's nothing wrong with their business, it's just to do with payments. With higher interest rates and inflation, some of the larger companies have more debt themselves. The increased rates squeeze them so they may try to offset that or slow down payments.

It's something we've avoided – we are fortunate that we have long relationships with our clients and they also understand the challenges. Most are managed by entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs who have followed the same journey. 

We are also fortunate that we've been in a growth area even during the pandemic, because COVID made everyone realise how important connectivity is for us as a society for both personal contact and work opportunities.

One of our specialist areas is work on some extremely isolated sites in remote areas of the UK. These projects facilitate coverage to the emergency services or connect some of our most remote communities. Due to the geographically challenging nature of these areas we have robust risk assessment and health and safety protocols to ensure the safety of teams.

An example of the advantages provided by this type of technology was during the pandemic where drones delivered the vaccine to some remote areas in Argyll and Bute. Those drones were able to fly because of the connectivity from 4G telecoms sites combined with satellites.

LJ: How has central government policy affected your work?

TG: First, government policy brought in the Digital Economy Act 2017. This major change to legislation created new challenges for us around the working practices and expertise required to carry out our work. One example was that in 2018, conforming with the requirements of this legislation, clients asked us to use RICS registered valuers to carry out the valuations.

The scope of these valuations was different to previous work and as tribunal decisions were made the parameters changed, which added complexity to the project. We had to ensure the company was skilled up quickly and had the required competency to meet that demand.

We were fortunate that we did have registered valuers in the company. But we also brought in a specialist to join the team who went on to become an expert witness in several of the landmark tribunal cases. 

He has given up-to-date training for our team throughout. In 2018 alone we did more than 1,000 valuations under the new legislation. Because we are relatively small we are more agile and able to make decisions and adapt quickly. That ethos is central to the company.

The second area of government policy that has been helpful to us has enabled us to set up an Employee Ownership Trust. We are the first surveying company with headquarters in Scotland to do this, and in April we became an employee-owned company. So we're all in it together and everyone in the company is incentivised to ensure we succeed.

'We are the first surveying company with headquarters in Scotland to set up an Employee Ownership Trust'

LJ: Has local government policy affected you at all?

TG: Yes, specifically on the planning side. For example, Northern Ireland has issues with its planning system at the moment, such as a lack of planning resources, and it is common for it to take a year or more to get a decision on a planning application.

Local government policy and its ability to fund the required capacity for the government departments that we liaise with can have a huge impact on us as a development company that relies on interacting with some of those governmental functions.

On an even more local level, different planning authorities will have their own respective telecoms policies and we need to navigate and respect these.

LJ: Do sector standards and climate change requirements affect you?

TG: We're a service industry, and we are based both in offices and remotely. We have a recycling policy. We also try to do everything by email and reduce our carbon footprint wherever possible. We use online meetings to reduce physical travel. And we have personnel throughout the UK so we are able to send local staff to sites. In our daily work we are helping to facilitate solar and wind turbine schemes for telecoms sites. We do what we're able to control and that's policed by our quality manager.

LJ: How is AI affecting your business?

TG: I can see it affecting chartered surveying full stop. Certainly, technology is having an impact on us already. For example, there are drones that will carry out spatial surveys of a building or telecoms site and then tell you exactly what equipment is installed and in what location.

Previously that would have been a surveyor or engineer's job. I think the challenge for SMEs and larger companies is to accept these inevitable changes and then look at the opportunities, not try to stem the tide of technology. So that's a big challenge for us: not to be frightened of it, to welcome it and to try to incorporate it into our working practices – and work out how we can be more effective by using it.

'I think the challenge for SMEs and larger companies is to accept these inevitable changes and look at the opportunities of technology'

LJ: Finally as an SME, what support would you like from RICS?

TG: One area we would like support with is the RICS website. We want the telecoms section to be updated to include more useful facts about the sector, such as benchmarking information on telecoms issues, successful deals completed, court cases and decisions and use of alternative dispute resolution services, so we can refer people we are dealing with to it.

The new legislation means negotiation is quite complicated, so it would be good to have a space with independent information for non-specialist surveyors and the public. We want landowners to instruct their surveyors accordingly, and realise that they need someone competent to represent them.

We're liaising with RICS on this, and our quality manager has already drafted some material for the site. The institution's head of professional practice for land and resources James Kavanagh is coordinating the work on the update.

Tom Gallivan is managing director of DOT Surveying

Contact Tom: Email | LinkedIn

Related competencies include: Landlord and tenant, Legal/regulatory compliance, Valuation

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