Planning Reform: Building Mobile Britain

Network Rollout and Planning

Increasing consumer demand, especially for data, requires mobile operators to invest continually in network coverage and capacity. This is largely driven by the widespread adoption of smartphones and the rapid uptake of tablet devices.

A good mobile connection has a positive impact on the economy and also promotes efficient delivery of public services, social inclusion and other benefits. Across the UK as a whole, research by Ofcom has shown that in recent years, more people rely on a mobile phone than rely on a
landline; and that people on lower incomes are even more likely to live in a
mobile-only household, or to access the Internet using a mobile connection.

Good mobile coverage promotes sustainability, both for individual communities and across the economy as a whole. For example, it enables home working, thus reducing the need for travel, and so contributes to minimising pollution, and mitigating climate change and helps in the move towards a low carbon economy.

Mobile telecommunications networks are a crucial piece of national infrastructure in economic, community and social terms.

The construction and alteration of mobile phone masts and antennas is governed by planning policy and regulation within each of the nations of the United Kingdom and the Electronic Communications Code (ECC).

What planning reform will achieve
What planning reform will achieve
What planning reform will enable
What planning reform will enable
What planning reform will retain
What planning reform will retain

Reforming Planning for 21st Century mobile networks

Why is reform of planning policy required?

The planning regimes across the United Kingdom were set down in legislation that pre-dates the move to 5G technologies; also, following the COVID-19 pandemic Britain’s reliance on mobile connectivity and the infrastructure that underpins it has become ever more critical. Planning regulations and the advice that goes with them must be urgently updated to enable mobile operators to deploy their networks to meet rapidly growing demand and to ensure that people and businesses have access to wider coverage and the latest technologies.

The reforms being sought by the mobile industry, what they will achieve and what they will retain (i.e. local accountability).

Why are changes required?

The planning regime contains many anomalies that make it difficult for mobile network operators to install their equipment, such as:

Anomalies between fixed and mobile:Fixed and mobile networks continue to be treated differently under planning law which means that while certain fixed broadband installations, such as telegraph poles, can be done so through the permitted development rights system mobile installations, such as monopoles, cannot.

Disincentives to sharing infrastructure:Current planning rules act as a disincentive to infrastructure sharing because to add new radio equipment to a mast or to share an existing mast with an additional operator the planning process requires more stringent requirements that are not required if a new site were being proposed.

What this means is that the planning system makes it easier to build a new site than use an existing site which already has power and fibre installed and is accepted by the local community. A new site will impact a new area and community and will also require fibre and power to be installed.

Do mobile operators already share infrastructure?

Yes, mobile operators already share a large proportion of their network infrastructure under two joint ventures, Cornerstone (owned by Vodafone and O2) and MBNL (owned by Three and EE). Sharing infrastructure enables operators to consolidate their infrastructure networks while also reducing the number of masts and supporting structures required. The sharing of infrastructure also reduces the impact of mobile structures on communities and is more sustainable for the environment.

Do higher masts help broadcast signals further?

Yes. The taller the mast, the wider the area it can cover, and the more people it can provide with a fast and reliable mobile signal. Under current rules, most UK masts are around 25m (82ft) tall. But higher masts would give a better, more far-reaching signal in many areas. Shorter masts have a shorter range, so more are often needed than if higher limits were permitted.However, the average mast height in the UK is 18 metres. Mobile operators will not seek to build masts at the maximum height in all cases but on a case by case basis, often based on back transmission to another mast to gain line-of-site or because a higher mast would provide a better signal to that specific location.

Is the industry seeking to erode local powers and build anywhere and everywhere?

No. The changes being sought by the industry will continue to mean that accountability will be retained at the local level. Equally, these changes do not allow the industry to build anywhere and everywhere. These reforms are being sought to enable the industry to create more efficient networks while also potentially reducing the number of masts and supporting infrastructure required by allowing more opportunities for consolidating and sharing between network operators. This will enable more optimum networks providing the latest technology and enhancing capacity while also further reducing the impact of mobile infrastructure on the environment.

Planning Policy across the United Kingdom