Review: Wales risks 5G rollout delay

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Wales is in danger of being left behind in the delivery of the next generation mobile network unless the Welsh Government steps up its efforts.

The National Assembly’s Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee has been reviewing the Welsh Government’s Mobile Action Plan which sets out what ministers will do to ensure better coverage in Wales.

The Committee notes that 5G mobile network promises to change people’s lives by connecting more smart devices and offering higher speeds. It will also provide the network autonomous cars will need to navigate. However the Committee found that, while network coverage for 4G is improving in Wales, this is because of investment from mobile phone networks rather than any interventions by the Welsh Government.

Mobile UK, which represents the UK’s main mobile network operators, warned: “2019 is the first expectation of the roll-out of the first commercial networks of 5G. So, we’re at a point of almost just getting ourselves ready for 4G, when we’ve already moved on to the next technology.”

The Committee is urging the Welsh Government to work with mobile providers as soon as possible to identify the challenges of 5G and how to tackle them.

Mobile phone operators have also called for changes to planning regulations around the height and locations of new masts. Changes could open the way to mobile providers sharing masts more and increasing network coverage with less investment.

Network provider EE told the Committee: “If you want to be able to share infrastructure, it needs to be large enough, big enough, to accommodate the equipment for multiple operators, and if, broadly, we are restricted to 15 metre-high masts in Wales under permitted development rights, it makes that incredibly difficult.”

The Welsh Government is currently proposing allowing 25 metre-high masts in non-protected areas of Wales. The Committee recommends this should be increased to 30 metres and found that the planning regime in England was much more lenient when it came to siting masts.

“Mobile phone coverage in Wales consistently lags behind the rest of the UK,” said Russell George AM, Chair of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee.

“The advent of 5G promises to further integrate technology into our lives through smart devices such as autonomous cars. It is critical therefore that Wales is not left behind in this new era.

“But while the country as a whole prepares for the next generation of mobile connectivity, there are still parts of Wales with no connection at all. That simply isn’t good enough and it is crucial these not-spots are covered, particularly in remote, rural areas.

“We are therefore urging ministers to engage with the network operators, establish the challenges ahead and how best to tackle them face on.

The Committee makes 10 recommendations in its report, including:

  • The Welsh Government should allow higher masts under the permitted planning regime;
  • The Welsh Government should engage with mobile operators as soon as is practicable to identify the challenges of rolling out the 5G network, and consider how to address those challenges using the levers it has at its disposal; and,
  • In areas outside of commercial viability, either providers should be obliged to provide coverage as part of the regulatory framework in which they operate, or the right to provide coverage should revert back to the public sector after a reasonable time.

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