The government has proposed legal changes to improve connectivity for people who live, work and travel in rural areas.
The reforms will make it easier and cheaper to build the necessary new infrastructure while protecting the countryside by minimising any visual impact.
The proposals will allow mobile companies 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.
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. Stricter rules will apply in protected areas, including national parks, the Broads, conservation areas, Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other AONBs, and world heritage sites.
The move will boost the delivery of the £1 billion Shared Rural Network that hopes to eliminate 4G mobile ‘not spots’ across the country and will speed up the rollout of next-generation 5G networks.
The measures will incentivise mobile firms to improve existing masts rather than building new ones, with fewer new masts needed for rural communities to access 5G connections. These will be crucial to future innovations across remote healthcare, self-driving vehicles and smart devices such as fridges, TVs and heating systems.
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 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% 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 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.