July 29, 2020

Guest Blog: Urgent planning reforms will accelerate the rollout of 5G (Stephen Lerner, General Counsel at Three)

Telephone mast
This artlicle has kindly been replicated with permission from Three and can be found at its original form here.

As the UK braces itself for a post-COVID-19 future, investment in infrastructure will be key to building our way out of a downturn.

The UK’s rollout of 5G networks, which is already underway, will clearly play a major part in this. This has been made even more critical as the coronavirus crisis forces physical services online.

But we need help to do this and it was great that the government recognised this by announcing reforms to planning laws that will make it easier, both legally and financially, for operators to expand their networks.  

The current state of play

Network operators face increasingly difficult conditions for the rollout of 5G, that make it ever more challenging to meet the Government’s ambitious targets of giving every household access to gigabit-capable coverage by 2025. One notable obstacle relates to planning permission.

We hear a lot about fibre and spectrum as the building blocks to 5G, but we often forget about their less glamorous (but no less fundamental) partner – masts.  As masts are certainly the most visible representation of our 4G and 5G networks, they are often also the part of network expansion that is the most challenging to navigate.

To build or repurpose a mast to make it 5G ready, networks need planning permission. Currently it can take up to 18 months to secure permission to build or upgrade sites: an expensive and lengthy process that we simply don’t have time for if we want to support the Government’s ambitious targets.

In light of the significant difficulties faced by network operators, the Government must fast-track permissions to enable 5G site upgrades for a reasonable cost to operators in order to support its ambitious targets. This was already a major hurdle before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and we have seen a significant impact since. From slow planning approval processes by overwhelmed local councils to fears around unfounded conspiracy theories linking 5G to coronavirus, our 5G rollout plans face unnecessary obstacles.

Network challenges are further exacerbated by the UK Government’s restrictions on high-risk vendors imposed in January 2020 and tightened in July 2020.

Government action

With the above in mind, I was delighted to see the government announced the long-awaited outcome of the Mobile Planning Consultation including some ground breaking reforms.

Three supports the Government’s proposed amendments to permitted development rights, which could mean:

1.    Allowing existing ground-based masts to be strengthened without prior approval to enable sites to be upgraded for 5G and for mast sharing.

2.    Changing the permitted height of new masts to deliver better mobile coverage, promote mast sharing and minimise the need to build more infrastructure.

3.    Allowing building-based masts nearer to roads to support 5G and increase mobile coverage.

4.    Cabinets containing radio equipment allowed to be deployed near masts without prior approval

Now that we know the government’s ambitions, it is imperative that these reforms are brought forward as quickly as possible. The pandemic has shone a light on the importance of telecoms networks to our society – they have helped keep the economy going and helped people keep in touch with family and friends while adhering to the lockdown.

These planning reforms are a good first step – but the Government will be required to do more to encourage investment in our mobile network infrastructure (i.e. including on issues such as the Electronic Communications Code), particularly in light of the government’s restrictions on high-risk vendors.

Written by, Stephen Lerner, General Counsel & Regulatory Affairs Director at Three.

About Building Mobile Britain

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Building Mobile Britain is a campaign created by Mobile UK seeking to work with national and local government, as well as interested industry groups to overcome the challenges we face with expanding the existing mobile networks, while also developing innovative services for customers.

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