Prime Minister David Cameron hints legislation that makes it easy to build networks could be on the way
Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested the UK Government will look to bring in legislation that will make it easier for mobile operators to build masts and other mobile infrastructure to improve coverage, especially in rural areas.
In response to a question by Andrew Murrison, Conservative MP for South West Wiltshire, Cameron admitted more needed to be done and suggested that campaigns to stop masts from being built a decade ago over aesthetic reasons and unproven health concerns had actually had a detrimental impact.
“There’s clearly more that needs to be done and I think this is something for members right across the House [of Commons],” he said. “Ten years ago, I think we were all guilty of leading campaigns against masts and all rest of it. Our constituents now want coverage for the Internet and their mobile phones.
“We need to make sure we change the law in all the ways necessary to make sure the wayleaves are granted, the masts are built, we increase coverage and make sure everyone is connected to the information superhighway.”
Mobile operators have frequently complained about planning permission regulations and a lack of access to sites. Unlike utilities companies, networks have to negotiate with landlords every time it wants to upgrade a site, making it difficult to boost coverage.
Infrastructure operator Arqiva said it has walked away from improving coverage in one village because residents argued for too long about which colour the mast should be.
Operators have also said the UK is still paying for anti-mast campaigns when fears about aesthetics and radiation were more common. Indeed, T-Mobile and Orange were required to plant trees around masts as a condition of their 3G licences – 15 years later and the trees have grown to such an extent that they block signals, according to EE.
The government has previously suggested legislation would be introduced to improve rural mobile coverage, while all four major operators have committed to invest a combined £5bn in their networks to extend at least voice and text services to 90 percent of the UK land mass.
However, the £150m Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) initiative has been described by Culture Secretary Ed Vaizey as a failure.
“I am fully prepared to stand up in the Chamber and admit that the mobile infrastructure project has not been as successful as we had envisaged,” he told MPs last month. “We set aside £150m. We talked about 600 sites. Our heart was in the right place.
“We wanted to eliminate the ‘not spots’ that exist as best we could.”
Operators have welcomed the Cameron’s pledge.
“We welcome the Prime Minister’s comments about reforms to the planning process in England which will help extend mobile phone coverage to harder to reach places,” a Three spokesperson told TechWeekEurope.
“We agree the planning regime needs to better enable us to be able to build the network infrastructure suitable to deliver the maximum coverage possible, including more equipment on existing masts and taller masts where necessary,” added Vodafone. “We continue to ask for reform to happen as quickly as possible so we can better build and roll out 4G coverage to customers across the UK and particularly those in rural communities.”
“We welcome and support the governments’ recognition that planning needs to be updated. This will help deliver the digital infrastructure we need to provide customers across the UK with the coverage and capacity they need and keep the UK at the forefront of digital economy,” said O2. “Currently the mobile industry is building digital networks using an outdated regime and, if such changes are forthcoming, we will continue to work with national government, local authorities and communities to ensure that masts are built and run in a responsible and considerate manner.”
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