September 17, 2019

Planning for a 5G world, and why reform is required?

An example of masts in a rural area.

Bidding to be Prime Minister, Boris Johnson made the shock announcement to pledge nationwide full-fibre broadband by 2025, eight years ahead of current targets. While focussed on fixed broadband, his desire for Britain to be a leading digitally connected nation was apparent. Indeed, even before this, the Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review targeted nationwide 5G overage by 2027, and with it ambitious commitments to tackle barriers to deployment, including reviewing the planning regime. I must admit to a certain scepticism and wrote the following at the time:

“its sense of urgency and emphasis on action needed ‘at a pace’ is not matched by a solid timetable for reform or firm commitments to reform the planning system which is not yet fit for purpose for the upcoming 5G deployment.”

Roll on a year, and the Government has put pen to paper and published a consultation on proposed reforms to permitted development rights to support the deployment of 5G and extend mobile coverage. While a consultation and not actual changes, the proposals align with industry recommendations. It also indicates a welcome willingness to consider making credible changes to the planning regime to achieve the goal of wider coverage.

In summary, the reforms are as follows:

  • changing the permitted height of new masts to deliver better mobile coverage, promote mast sharing and minimise the need to build more infrastructure;
  • allowing existing ground-based masts to be strengthened without prior approval to enable sites to be upgraded for 5G and for mast sharing;
  • deploying radio equipment cabinets on protected and unprotected land without prior approval, excluding sites of special scientific interest; and
  • allowing building-based masts nearer to roads to support 5G and increase mobile coverage.

Why are these reforms required? While the proposed changes could remove barriers highlighted by the industry, it is true they will also provide the potential for taller and wider masts through permitted development.While this would enable a lighter touch planning process, it still requires either notification or prior approval from local authorities for the siting and appearance of apparatus before carrying out any development.

The clamour for mobile connectivity, in both rural and urban areas, and the commencement of 5G demands of industry rapid deployment. 4G covers at present 67% of the UK’s geographic landmass and 5G networks are being rolled out initially across the UK’s major urban centres.

To further extend coverage, mobile operators need to be able to strengthen existing sites to accommodate additional equipment and to add new sites into areas of little or no coverage. Furthermore, government policy and economics have directed industry to share network infrastructure to reduce the number of masts to minimise costs and mitigate visual impact. Further, masts in rural areas where there is often no fibre in the ground must be able to achieve line of sight for transmission purposes. While the site of mobile masts is not often universally welcomed, it is a simple truth that if a mobile signal is desired, there must be the infrastructure to support it.

What these reforms do not do is signal a free for all. Some commentators have suggested the industry will seek to build “a forest of masts”at heights akin to famous landmarks (e.g. Nelson’s Column at 52m).Unfortunately for those who propagate this view, it is simply not in the industry’s interests both economically and practically. Higher masts do offer the ability to cover wider areas, but the actual height of a mast is based on the needs of the location. Industry requests for changes to the planning regime are, therefore, more about providing the flexibility to provide the optimum solution in any given area rather than being able to build for the sake of it.

The demand for mobile connectivity is no longer a luxury but a necessity. This is just as true in rural areas where planning restrictions are most stringent. Rural bodies such as the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) and the National Farmers Union (NFU) have stated that it is“crucial that rural areas receive the same level of mobile coverage as urban areas” and that the “Government is right to focus on planning reform as a means to removing current barriers.”

The industry is working with stakeholders to extend and enhance coverage, particularly in rural areas. It currently has an unprecedented joint industry proposal for a Shared Rural Network to significantly extend rural coverage. To achieve this planning cannot continue to remain an obstacle and we look forward to working in partnership with all stakeholders to bring about the reforms within the government’s consultation to facilitate a truly digitally connected Britain.

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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