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Government to ease planning laws for mobile networks

Westminster is seeking input on four key proposals to make it easier to build and operate 5G mobile networks

The government has opened a new consultation on a reformation of the planning laws governing mobile network infrastructure to improve both 4G and 5G coverage in rural areas.

Part of a wider plan to “level up” connectivity for communities across the country, the consultation will seek input from stakeholders on four key proposals.

These are: to increase the permitted height of new masts and promote mast sharing to deliver better coverage and minimise the need to build more infrastructure; to allow existing masts to be strengthened without prior approval to enable 5G upgrades; to deploy radio equipment cabinets on both protected and unprotected land without prior approval (except in sites of special scientific interest); and to allow building-based masts closer to roads.

Westminster is also seeking views on measures that mobile network operators (MNOs) could offer to mitigate the impact of new infrastructure, such as assurances that the use of existing sites will be prioritised, and redundant masts taken down.

“We are committed to delivering the homes people across the country need, and that includes delivering the right infrastructure such as broadband connectivity and good mobile coverage,” said housing and planning minister Esther McVey. “There is nothing more frustrating than moving into your new home to find the signal is poor.

“That is why we are proposing to simplify planning rules for installing the latest mobile technology – helping to extend coverage and banish more of those signal blackspots, particularly for those living in rural areas.”

Mark Bridgeman, deputy president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and Hamish MacLeod, director of trade association Mobile UK, both spoke in support of the government’s proposals.

“The current situation, where only 67% of the country can access a decent signal, is unacceptable and government is right to focus on planning reform as a means to removing current barriers,” said Bridgeman. “But there must also be a balance between the interests of landowners and mobile operators.

MacLeod added: “The current planning system does not support the fast, efficient roll-out of 5G technology that is vital for the UK’s digital economy. We stand ready to work in partnership to ensure these much-needed reforms happen as quickly as possible.”

At the same time, digital minister Nicky Morgan has launched a £30m countrywide competition to trial 5G applications in 10 rural locations, with the intention of stimulating further commercial investment.

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The Rural Connected Communities contest, which will be open to submissions until 25 October 2019, is part of a wider wave of funding for 5G trials in the UK, and will build on existing work being done under the 5G Testbeds and Trials project.

“The British countryside has always been a hotbed of pioneering industries and we are making sure our rural communities aren’t left behind in the digital age,” said Morgan. “We are investing millions so the whole country can grasp the opportunities and economic benefits of next-generation 5G technology.

TechUK CEO Julian David said: “5G is an essential component of the UK’s digital fabric. It underpins innovative technologies, from drones to AI. TechUK welcomes this initiative and sees this government has long recognised the benefits offered by 5G to businesses and consumers, making considerable investment already in 5G testbeds and trials, including 5G RuralFirst, led by TechUK member Cisco.”

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