The UK government is proposing law changes to boost ongoing efforts to improve connectivity for people who live, work and travel in rural areas.
It says the reforms will remove one of the biggest barriers to better mobile coverage in the countryside by reducing build time and costs for new infrastructure while protecting rural areas by minimising any visual impact. Under the proposals, mobile companies will be allowed to make new and existing masts up to five metres taller and two metres wider than current rules permit. This is designed to increase the range of masts and allow operators to fit more equipment onto them so they can be shared more easily.
With the reforms, the government claims it can “turbocharge” the delivery of the Shared Rural Network (SRN) being built to eliminate 4G mobile “not spots” in the countryside and will speed up the roll-out of next-generation 5G networks. The £1.3bn SRN programme was first proposed in October 2019, aiming to wipe “not spots” from the map, providing what the government claims will be “high-quality” 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025.
This followed years of complaints by mobile consumers and businesses that the major political parties had consistently failed rural businesses by lacking a credible solution to improve mobile 4G and 5G coverage.
In practice, the SRN will be made possible through a partnership between the UK’s four major telecoms operators – EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – which will invest in a network of new and existing phone masts they will all share, overseen by a jointly owned company called Digital Mobile Spectrum Limited. The four networks have already committed to legally binding contracts and investing £532m to close almost all partial “not spots” – areas where there is currently only coverage from at least one, but not all operators.
The scheme also saw a commitment by the UK government to supplement the operators’ investment with more than £500m of funding. Phase one of the scheme was announced on 27 January 2021.
As part of the latest development in the programme, the government says it will incentivise mobile firms to focus on improving existing masts over building new ones, with fewer new masts needed for rural communities to get a better signal now and to take full advantage of future 5G-connected technology. This includes innovations in remote healthcare, self-driving vehicles and smart devices such as fridges, TVs and heating systems.
The new regulations will see stricter rules apply in protected areas, including national parks, conservation areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty. The plans also include proposals to bring better mobile coverage for road users by allowing building-based masts to be placed nearer to highways.
A joint technical consultation between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government has been published today with details of the changes, and it will seek views on reforms to permitted development rights in England.
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These include existing mobile masts to be strengthened without prior approval, so they can be upgraded for 5G and shared between mobile operators. This would allow increases to the width of existing masts by up to either 50% or two metres (whichever is greater), and in unprotected areas to allow increases in height up to a maximum of 25 metres (previously 20 metres).
Bigger increases will also be permitted subject to approval by the local authority. It also suggests that new masts can be built up to five metres higher – meaning a maximum of 30 metres in unprotected areas and 25 metres in protected areas, subject to approval by the planning authority.
The consultation will look at greater freedoms for slimline “monopole” masts up to 15 metres in height, which are less visually intrusive than standard masts and those used for 5G roll-out, in unprotected areas. This could mean operators notifying local authorities of their intention to proceed without needing prior approval. This would align it with current rights that telecoms operators have for telegraph poles.
DCMS will also lead on a new code of practice for mobile network operators. This will provide updated guidance on how operators and local authorities can work together to build communications infrastructure that the country needs. It will also contain best practice for the siting of new infrastructure, particularly in protected areas, and ensuring stakeholders are properly consulted.
The consultation will run for eight weeks, closing on 14 June 2021.
“We are setting out plans to make it easier for mobile firms to transform connectivity in the countryside and propel villages and towns out of the digital dark ages – providing a welcome boost for millions of families, businesses and visitors,” said digital secretary Oliver Dowden. “These practical changes strike a careful balance between removing unnecessary barriers holding back better coverage, while making sure we protect our precious landscape.
“Most new masts will still need to be approved by local authorities, which will have a say on where they are placed and their appearance. Robust conditions and limits will remain in place to make sure communities and stakeholders are properly consulted and the environment is protected.”
Hamish MacLeod, director at Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators, added: “We welcome the proposals set out in this consultation, which will provide better certainty and flexibility to technological changes required to build world-class mobile networks. We urge the government that to assist mobile companies to meet its ambitious targets for deployment, it brings about legislative change as quickly as possible.”