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The new secretary of state for Wales, Alun Cairns, has called on the Welsh government to consider allowing taller mobile phone masts to address the problem of poor or non-existent cellular reception in rural areas.
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In last week’s Budget statement, the chancellor George Osborne announced that he would explore relaxing planning regulations in England to boost coverage.
Cairns met with mobile network operators EE, O2, Three and Vodafone at the Welsh Office on 23 March 2016 to discuss how to tackle the prevalence of mobile ‘not-spots’ in remote parts of Wales, particularly in the north of the country.
An estimated 4% of Welsh households and businesses are still unable to get voice reception from any of the four UK operators – double the UK rate.
“While I appreciate the success of progress so far and scale of challenge around improving mobile connections in Wales, there remain areas in rural parts of Wales that have no mobile coverage,” said Cairns.
“The UK government used the Budget to announce greater freedoms and flexibilities for the deployment of mobile infrastructure. I’d like to see the Welsh government consider something similar.”
Cairns said that the Welsh government could consider allowing the construction of mobile masts up to 25 metres tall – 10 metres higher than the current allowable maximum height – without planning permission.
“If we want better coverage in hard-to-access areas, then we need to encourage the operators to invest in their networks for better voice and data services,” he said, adding that local communities would be fully consulted and involved in the planning process if the regulations were relaxed.
The meeting also examined a trial collaboration taking part in Scotland between EE and Facebook, which is offering 4G connections to remote villages, to see if similar technologies could work in Wales.
Cairns, who represents the Vale of Glamorgan at Westminster, was appointed to the role earlier in March after his predecessor, Stephen Crabb, took over from Iain Duncan Smith at the Department for Work and Pensions.