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How the Netherlands remains Europe’s digital frontrunner

How the Netherlands remains Europe’s digital frontrunner

Fewer rules, less cost to society and shorter processing times

VodafoneZiggo and other telecom parties will be heavily investing in their fixed and mobile network these coming years. Necessary to enable 5G and to accommodate the exponential growth in data usage. The Netherlands is the digital frontrunner of Europe and intends to keep that position. For that, the government needs to take steps, too.

For maintaining and expanding optical fibre and cable networks in the Netherlands, telecom parties need the government. The government needs to grant them permission to dig into the ground, a so-called declaration of consent. The pace of telecom parties is high, but (technical) capacity at municipalities and contractors is scarce. In addition, there is the forthcoming energy transition, resulting in a further increase in the number of licence applications on municipality level. Where to go from here?

Time to enter into discussions. Last October, the Ministries of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy and of the Interior and Kingdom Relations, the VNG (Association of Netherlands Municipalities) and telecom parties invited all municipalities and provinces to regional roundtable discussions. The theme of these discussions was the future of the digital infrastructure, the best ways for municipalities and provinces to prepare for that, and the opportunities this offers them. Everything with a view to enabling a fast roll-out of 5G and optical fibre and in this way realising the City of the Future.

Cover the costs
"To keep abreast of digital developments and prevent the lack of capacity becoming a bottleneck, the efficiency of the process needs to improve", says Gerjan van der Laan, Environmental Manager Government at VodafoneZiggo. "We offer a helping hand to municipalities and provinces, aiming for a win-win situation. We are in this together." As far as Van der Laan is concerned, a number of important things need to change, starting with the application procedure for the declaration of consent. "There are 355 municipalities and 70 other licensing authorities. Combined, they have 170 different systems to apply for a declaration of consent. There must be an easier way."

Van der Laan does not expect municipalities to all agree on the same system. "That is wishful thinking. But we cán agree on uniform rules and conditions. That would already make a huge difference. The administrative charges we have to pay for an application now vary enormously. For 125 metres of cable, this can range from 43 to an impressive 1,843 euros. It has to be cost-effective for a municipality, we understand, but what falls under the term ‘cost-effectiveness’, varies from municipality to municipality. It would be nice if we can take the same line there."

Into the ground
Before cables can be laid in the ground, a soil survey is needed in order to confirm the soil is clean and contractors can work safely. Everyone with plans to dig, needs to carry out such a survey. As a result, in many places detailed soil surveys have already been carried out. But this information is hardly ever shared. "So even if the energy company has commissioned a soil survey a week prior to us, we are still expected to provide a new survey of the exact same spot. A scan easily costs 80 euros and a more detailed survey can amount to hundreds of euros."

Ahead of the storm
During the roundtable discussions the telecom parties presented their plans to stay the digital frontrunner. The authorities now face the challenge to enable shorter processing times and minimise the costs to society. The telecom parties are not alone in their requests. Organizations that advise the authorities in the process regarding cables and pipelines, accept the importance too. "There are three issues we see as a priority", says Hamid Majaiti of consultancy firm Kapabel. "Harmonisation of rules and conditions with regard to declarations of consent, determining what falls under ‘cost-effectiveness’ and ensuring we can share and reuse soil surveys."

"It is significant that also independent consultancy firms like Kapabel are sympathetic to this", says Van der Laan. "We aim to keep providing excellent connectivity to users in the future. This is the only possible way to achieve that. We understand it is a lot to ask of the government. For that reason we are deliberately not taking a step down, to the contrary. Our message is, talk to us, we can help. The only thing is, we cannot wait that much longer. The task is already huge as it is, but will only become bigger with the arrival of 5G, the energy transition and the possible impact of the Environment and Planning Act. If we can properly sort things out now, together, we stay ahead of the storm."