Government efforts to tackle rural not spots will see mobile phone masts being up to five metres taller than existing rules
The British government continues its efforts to tackle mobile not-spots in rural locations and increase 5G coverage, with proposed reforms to existing infrastructure rules.
It said this 20 percent increase will increase the range of masts and allow operators to fit more equipment on them so they can be more easily shared.
The government proposals to change planning laws comes after a number of setbacks and difficulties experienced by mobile operators seeking to extend 5G coverage in the UK.
Those issues can include finding the appropriate power supply and fibre connections for the mobile towers or masts to tap into, and accessing the land or location itself.
But one of the biggest challenges for mobile operators, stems from overcoming local opposition.
This was evidenced just before Christmas, when Bath and North Somerset Council’s planning committee voted six to three to refuse permission for an existing 4G mast to be upgraded to 5G.
EE and Three had wished to upgrade their 15m mast at a sports ground on the fringes of Bath, to include 5G equipment – thereby raising the height by an extra 5 metres.
Indeed, a group called Stop 5G in Bath rallied opposition to the mast.
Matters were not helped when Bath’s Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse was among those who called on the council to listen to concerns about health.
In light of these planning problems and setbacks, the government is proposing law changes to boost connectivity in rural locations.
The government said that its reforms will remove one of the biggest barriers to better 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,” said the government. “This will increase the range of masts and allow operators to fit more equipment on them so they can be more easily shared.”
This means that mobile phone masts could be up to 30 metres tall, a 20 percent increase on the current maximum.
At the moment, any phone mast that is higher than 25 metres (or 20 metres in national parks) as to receive full planning permission.
The government proposals to allow masts to built 5 metres taller should help mobile operators avoid the painful planning permission process.
The government also said the proposed new rules will assist the delivery of the £1 billion Shared Rural Network (SRN), because it incentivises 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.”
However, this will be balanced by stricter rules for mobile masts in protected areas including national parks, the Broads, conservation areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty and world heritage sites.
Masts in those areas will be limited to 25 metres in height.
The proposals also aim to bring better mobile coverage for drivers, by allowing building-based masts to be placed nearer to highways.
“We want to level up the country and end the plague of patchy and poor mobile signals in rural communities,” said Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden.
“Today 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,” he said.
“These practical changes strike a careful balance between removing unnecessary barriers holding back better coverage, while making sure we protect our precious landscape,” said Dowden.
It should be noted that 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.
The government is mainly hoping that the proposals will encourage operators to upgrade (i.e. heighten) existing masts.
And the government proposals have been welcomed by the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators, Mobile UK.
“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,” said Hamish MacLeod, director of Mobile UK.
“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,” he added.
The government consultation will close on 14 June.
Shared Rural Network
In October 2019 the British Government and the big four mobile operators in the UK had pledged £1 billion to create a ‘Shared Rural Network’, (SRN).
The aim of the £1 billion SRN is to extend mobile services in rural areas to deliver 95 percent 4G coverage in the UK by 2024, no matter what mobile network customers use.
It comes after years of complaints about mobile coverage in rural locations.
In March 2020 BT, Vodafone, O2 and Three UK reached a final agreement to share network infrastructure in order to eliminate mobile not-spots in mostly rural locations.
In February this year, EE announced that a total of 579 areas will benefit from extended EE 4G coverage by the end of 2021.