A US based telecommunications investment company, that could lose millions of pounds in revenue under rule changes to the mobile phone mast renting system in the UK, has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds creating, managing and financing an astroturf campaign to put political pressure on the government to halt the reforms.
Since February 2021, the Protect and Connect campaign has spent over £400k on Facebook ads asking constituents throughout the UK to petition MPs about the “mobile mast rip-off” and to “Help stop telecoms giants from exploiting small landowners”. The organisation’s website entreaties users to “make their voices heard” and declares that “you could make a huge difference to small independent land and property owners, churches, farmers and community groups in your area”.
The political reach of the campaign’s lobbying efforts in Westminster was highlighted by the Protect and Connect website on October 12th, where it was announced that the House of Lords had:
“voted on a Protect and Connect-backed amendment to the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, which opens the door to a long awaited independent review of the broken 2017 Electronic Communications Code.”
We can reveal that what is not disclosed to the public by those that run the Protect and Connect campaign is that it is funded exclusively by a US company called AP Wireless. AP is itself a telecoms corporation that has explicitly stated in financial documents that the rule changes would have an “adverse impact on our financial condition” and “give our customers greater leverage over us for demanding reduced rents and better terms”.
Aside from a well-coordinated social media and lobbying campaign, the unidentified directors of Protect and Connect have also utilised their vast resources to enlist prominent former government ministers and employees to promote its cause in the mainstream media. The group is chaired by former Labour MP Anna Turley, and former Vote Leave lieutenant and key Boris Johnson advisor Lee Cain has recently accepted a paid commission to provide P&C with “senior strategic advice and media support”.
The Protect and Connect media team did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
WHO FUNDS PROTECT AND CONNECT?
The term “astroturf” refers to an activist group or movement that appears authentically grassroots in origin, but, in reality, has been fabricated by a public relations organisations or other politically motivated actor to disguise the true identity, funding and/or intentions, of those responsible.
Protect & Connect are currently recorded as the 56th highest spending organisation on UK Facebook since financial transparency regulations were brought to the platform in 2018. For comparison, Protect and Connect have spent more in 18 months than the official FB pages of the Welsh Government, Boris Johnson and UNISON have in 4 years.
AP Wireless (part of the Radius Global Infrastructure) is a “mobile phone mast lease investment company”.
What this means is that the company offers UK landowners, with a mast situated on their property, the opportunity to receive a one-off lump sum for their mast lease. In exchange, AP Wireless will then receive the monthly instalments from the original telecommunications company, formerly paid to the landowner, for an agreed period of time. AP Wireless take a percentage of the full amount owed to the landowner in this “lease premium” to make a profit.
Acting as a middleman appears to be a profitable business model for AP. Both subsidiaries registered with Companies House in the UK (AP Wireless UK and AP Wireless UK II) reported holding significant assets for the 2021 financial year. AP Wireless UK reported Net Assets of over £71 Million, and AP Wireless UK II registered Net Assets of over £46 Million. Protect and Connect does not appear to be listed as an independent organisation on Companies House, so does not have any registered accounts accessible to the public.
The 2021 financial statement for AP Wireless UK II highlights one possible reason why the company has invested such significant amounts of resources and money (£11k on FB ads this week alone!) to run Protect and Connect:
“Our annualized in-place rent as of December 31 2021 generated by property in the UK was approximately 18%. A material reduction in our annualized in-place rents in the UK would have a material adverse impact on our results of operations and financial condition…a substantial portion of revenue is derived from a small number of customers…The loss, consolidation or financial instability of..the limited number of customers can reduce the diversity of our customers from which we derive revenue, and give our customers greater leverage over us for demanding and renegotiating reduced rents and better terms for such customers, and thus having the potential to decrease our revenue…The company will continue to monitor developments around the Code, and is committed to robustly defending its lease and other interests wherever necessary, through the courts and Protect and Connect“
The 2021 financial report also states that “group operations are funded by capital contributions and loan funding from our direct and indirect parent companies”.
What this means is that at least some of the money funding the Protect and Connect campaign, a campaign specifically designed to influence UK voters, lobby government figures and alter UK legislation, potentially originates from AP Wireless UK’s parent company in the US.
Anna Turley responded to Freedom’s request for comment:
“I have always been aware that Protect and Connect was managed and funded by APW. It has always been publicly transparent about this. I have no problem at all that this organisation has been able to provide a campaign platform for the many site-owners around the country adversely affected by changes to the Electronic Communications Code. Without them funding this campaign, there is no way that small farmers, churches or community groups could ever have had their individual cases raised with the same effect or collective power. I believe in people coming together collectively to fight for causes and I also believe that those that can afford to pay to support others to have a voice should do so”.
AP Wireless did not respond to a request for comment.
ELECTRONIC COMMUNICATIONS CODE AND PSTI BILL
Protect and Connect is bankrolled by AP to specifically oppose revisions to legislation called the Electronics Communications Code and the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure (PSTI) Bill.
The Code was reformed significantly in 2017, and the government held a further consultation in January 2021 with an eye to further changes. The Code is “the legal framework underpinning rights to install and keep electronic communications apparatus on public and private land, and to carry out other activities needed to provide electronic communications networks.”
In an article for Telecoms.com, Commercial Law specialist Jade Brooks describes how the reforms specifically benefit the companies leasing the masts, at the expense of the property owner:
“the New Code has severely impacted and limited landowners’ ability to charge premium prices for the operator’s use of their property. Rents are assessed on a ‘no network’ assumption and are based on the market value of the land without considering the value of the site to the operator. Typically, the sites in question are small areas which hold little value to the landowners as bare land and have few other suitable uses, and rents paid and compensations awarded have reduced significantly under the New Code.”
The PSTI Bill is currently in the final stages of passing into law, and is summarised as “a Bill to make provision about the security of internet-connectable products and products capable of connecting to such products; to make provision about electronic communications infrastructure; and for connected purposes.”
As part of the campaigns lobbying efforts against changes to the Code and the ratification of the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, Protect and Connect submitted evidence to the Bill Committee and drafted a briefing pack to be supplied to MP’s.
Anna Turley also told Freedom:
“For too long the big telecoms companies have had huge influence on the public policy debate in this area, and finally the little guys are getting their voice heard. Fair play to APW for funding this.”
The author of this article wishes to point out that he fully supports any measures taken to protect communities already suffering the disastrous effects of the corporate capture of the UK government and our economy.
But can this crusade to directly influence UK government policy really be led by an astroturf campaign group, fabricated by a US corporation, to explicitly protect its own millions of pounds worth of profits.
Are they truly fighting for these communities, or merely for the right to take the money from their pockets instead?