UK government consults on new laws to speed up rollout of 5G technology

April 20, 2021

The UK government is consulting on changes to the law, which it says will boost ongoing efforts to improve connectivity in rural areas. The proposed reforms aim to 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 taller and wider than current rules permit. This will increase the range of masts and allow operators to fit more equipment on them so they can be more easily shared. The government says that this will eliminate 4G mobile ‘not spots’ in the countryside and speed up rollout of next-generation 5G networks.

The aim is to provide incentives for mobile firms to focus on improving existing masts over building new ones, with fewer new masts needed for rural communities to receive a better signal now and to take full advantage of future 5G-connected technology. This includes innovations in remote healthcare, self-driving vehicles and smart devices such as fridges, TVs and heating systems. The plans also include proposals for better mobile coverage for road users by allowing building-based masts to be placed nearer to highways. However, the government says that stricter rules will apply in protected areas, including national parks, the Broads, conservation areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty and world heritage sites.

The consultation intends reforms to permitted development rights in England:

  • Existing mobile masts to be strengthened without prior approval, so that they can be upgraded for 5G and shared between mobile operators. This would allow increases to the width of existing masts by up to either 50% or two metres (whichever is greatest), and in unprotected areas allow increases in height up to a maximum of 25 metres (previously 20 metres). Greater increases will also be permitted subject to approval by the local authority.
  • New masts to be built up to five metres higher, meaning a maximum of 30 metres in unprotected areas and 25 metres in protected areas, subject to approval by the planning authority.
  • Greater freedoms for slimline ‘monopole’ masts up to 15 metres in height, which are less visually intrusive than standard masts and used for 5G rollout, in unprotected areas. This could mean operators notifying local authorities of their intention to proceed without needing prior approval. This would align it with current rights that telecoms operators have for telegraph poles.
  • Building-based masts to be placed nearer to highways to bring better mobile coverage to road networks, subject to prior approval, and in unprotected areas smaller building-based masts to be permitted without prior approval.
  • Cabinets containing radio equipment to be deployed alongside masts without prior approval and to allow greater flexibility for installing cabinets in existing compounds – fenced-off sites containing masts and other communications equipment – to support new 5G networks.

The DCMS also plans a new code of practice for mobile network operators. It says that this will provide updated guidance on how operators and local authorities can work together to build communications infrastructure the country needs. It will also contain best practice for the siting of new infrastructure, particularly in protected areas, and ensuring stakeholders are properly consulted.

The consultation ends on 14 June 2021.

Telecoms Diversification Taskforce report

In addition to the consultation, the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce has set out its recommendations on how to reduce the UK’s reliance on a small number of equipment vendors in the telecoms supply chain. The Telecoms Diversification Taskforce was set up by the government to provide independent advice on how to boost competition and innovation in the UK telecoms market and build an open, sustainable and diverse supply chain. It follows the government’s decision to remove Huawei equipment from UK 5G networks by 2027. Although the government says that this is necessary to protect national security, it means the UK will rely on only two other 5G equipment suppliers: Nokia and Ericsson.  The Taskforce recommends the following:

  • Working through telecoms standards-setting bodies to encourage best practice in security and open networks;
  • Creating the right environment for diversification through policy interventions – for example, setting out a timetable for the winding down of 2G and 3G networks to support the entry of new vendors into the UK market;
  • Identifying interventions and investment to accelerate the development and adoption of Open Radio Access Network technology, including setting up a fund for developing new products and ensuring testing facilities meet industry needs; and
  • Identifying opportunities to invest in long-term research and innovation to build UK capability for current and future generations of telecoms technology.

The government says that it will study the findings and respond fully in due course.