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UK action on rural mobile ‘not spots’

April 20, 2021

By Colin Mann

The UK government is proposing law changes to boost ongoing efforts to improve connectivity for people who live, work and travel in rural areas.

The 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. This will increase the range of masts and allow operators to fit more equipment on them so they can be more easily shared.

The move will turbocharge the delivery of the £1 billion Shared Rural Network being built to eliminate 4G mobile ‘not spots’ in the countryside and will speed up rollout of next-generation 5G networks.

It will incentivise 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. This includes innovations in remote healthcare, self-driving vehicles and smart devices such as fridges, TVs and heating systems.

Stricter rules will apply in protected areas, including national parks, the Broads, conservation areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty and world heritage sites.

The plans also include proposals to bring better mobile coverage for road users by allowing building-based masts to be placed nearer to highways.

The news comes as industry experts and academics set out recommendations on how to reduce the UK’s reliance on a small number of equipment vendors in the telecoms supply chain.

“We want to level up the country and end the plague of patchy and poor mobile signals in rural communities,” stated 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.”

“These practical changes strike a careful balance between removing unnecessary barriers holding back better coverage, while making sure we protect our precious landscape,” he added.

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. Robust conditions and limits will remain in place to make sure communities and stakeholders are properly consulted and the environment is protected.

“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,” commented 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.”

A joint technical consultation between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has been published with details of the changes. It follows an earlier consultation in 2019 on the principle of the reforms.

The consultation seeks views on 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 per cent 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.

DCMS will also lead on a new code of practice for mobile network operators. 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 will run for eight weeks and closes on June 14th 2021.

Led by former BT boss Lord Livingston of Parkhead, 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. While necessary to protect national security, it means the UK will be reliant on only two other 5G equipment suppliers: Nokia and Ericsson.

The taskforce’s report will support the government as it delivers its £250 million Diversification Strategy, mitigating the resilience risks to 5G networks ahead of the 2027 deadline so people can have confidence accessing the economic and social benefits brought by 5G. It recommends:

  • 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 such as the UK Telecoms Lab and SONIC meet industry needs;
  • Identifying opportunities to invest in long-term research and innovation to build UK capability for current and future generations of telecoms technology.

Now the taskforce has completed its work, the government will study the findings and respond fully in due course.

“Our £250 million strategy will unleash a wave of innovation across the UK and make sure companies have a wide range of revolutionary 5G technology to choose from that is trusted and secure,” declared Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure. “I welcome today’s report from the Telecoms Diversification Taskforce. It will be instrumental in helping us prepare our networks for next-generation mobile technologies. We will now consider its recommendations and respond in due course.”

“It has been a privilege to lead the Taskforce and help drive forward the government’s important work to diversify the telecoms supply chain and reduce reliance on high-risk vendors,” said Lord Livingston. “The government’s Diversification Strategy set out a clear ambition and the Taskforce has suggested concrete actions and policy recommendations to help it meet its aims. The UK now has the opportunity to create a more diverse network and be an international leader in the adoption of next-generation network technology. This will present substantial opportunities for UK based suppliers and users alike,” he suggested.

Phil Sorsky, SVP, Service Providers for EMEA at comms network equipment specialist CommScope, descrives the initiative as “a promising step” towards speeding up the 5G network rollout. “We believe all homes and businesses should be on a level playing field in terms of connectivity – regardless of location. As we upgrade our networks, we must ensure no areas are left behind and have the necessary network infrastructure to enable greater growth throughout the UK.”

“When it comes to rolling out these taller masts, they must be designed using the right equipment. Consumers will rightly expect this equipment to aesthetically blend into their environment.  For example, integrating technology into a range of slim antennas that are packing more functions into a neat footprint will suit contemporary thinking on urban design and respects the public’s view.  It’s also desirable to combine as many of the mobile frequencies into a single antenna, thus reducing the load on the mast and the number of actual antennas, which is especially useful when multiple operators wish to share the same rural site,” he suggests.

“While changes won’t happen overnight, investing in the digital transformation of our country will have long term and far reaching benefits for us all – both economically and socially. Building the infrastructure to supply fast, reliable connectivity to businesses will ultimately underpin our efforts to build back from the pandemic and so this is certainly a positive move from our perspective.”



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