Grassland in the morning

Government aims to boost mobile connectivity in rural areas

Eric Partridge

In a statement issued by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Government is proposing law changes in an ongoing effort to improve connectivity for people who live, work and travel in rural areas.

The reforms will remove one of the biggest barriers to better mobile telephone coverage in the countryside by reducing build time and costs for new infrastructure while protecting rural areas, thus minimising any visual impact.

The report claims that mobile signal blind-spots will be all-but wiped out as the Government plans to unlock tech innovation in the countryside overall. Under the proposals, mobile companies will be allowed to create 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.

As reported in The Moorlander last year, the move is designed to turbocharge the delivery of the £1 billion Shared Rural Network being built to eliminate 4G mobile ‘not spots’ in the countryside while the fast-tracking the rollout of next-generation 5G networks.

Stricter rules will, however, apply in protected areas, including national parks such as Dartmoor, conservation areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty and world heritage sites.

In announcing the report, Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “We want to level up the country and end the plague of patchy and poor mobile signals in rural communities.

‘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.”

A spokesman for Devon CPRE, the independent local charity that fights to protect Devon’s rural landscape, has expressed concern about the Government’s report.

“We know that improved connectivity is important to people in rural areas to close the ‘digital divide’, but proposals to allow taller masts and to build bigger masts could still have a big impact on our landscape.

‘There is also the question of whether, if allowed simply under permitted development rights, the Government’s apparent drive towards quick-fix solutions is effectively bypassing the planning system?”

Mr Dowden made this reassurance. “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.”
Rural communities also fear the erection of 5G mobile phone masts up to 30 metres tall and the perceived relaxed approach over planning requirements could lead to a plethora of new installations throughout rural Devon and more worryingly on Dartmoor itself, which would be extremely detrimental to the environment and the visual landscape.

Gareth Elliott, Head of Policy and Communications for Mobile UK, the trade association who represent the UK’s mobile phone operators EE, O2, Three and Vodafone, is mindful of the local concern.

“The Government’s announcement does indeed propose extending the permitted development height of new masts to 30 metres, but this has no bearing on the number of masts that would be built as a result. Masts are very expensive to build and operate and are only built where they are required to meet customer demand for coverage or capacity.

‘Protected areas will remain protected under the proposed changes, where new masts will be permitted up to 25 metres. The height increase proposed will also enable an individual mast to cover a wider area (Ofcom suggests a height increase from 20-25m will provide 19% additional coverage by area) which has the potential for operators to need fewer smaller masts to cover the same area. As a further benefit, being able to build larger masts under permitted development makes it easier for operators to share sites and to accommodate the extra equipment that sharing involves. Further, the proposed changes also promote the use of existing sites by allowing upgrades and structure strengthening and improvements which could reduce the need for additional sites where an existing site can be better upgraded, minimising the impact and need for additional infrastructure.

‘We should also emphasise that the changes proposed do not alter the process in terms of a local authority’s ability to refuse a site based on siting and appearance. Additionally, planning law requires local consultation where applications are submitted.”

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 the communications infrastructure that 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 14th June, 2021.