UK telcos to gain enhanced rights to deploy 5G equipment

Out-Law News | 28 Aug 2019 | 4:13 pm | 3 min. read

The rights telecoms operators have to upgrade their equipment on land owned by others are to be enhanced in the UK to support the delivery of '5G' services and to improve mobile network coverage.

Proposals set out by the UK government earlier this week would add to the permitted development rights operators currently enjoy under the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) and the General Permitted Development Order.

The plans would increase the height that new masts could be installed at, and further allow operators to expand the width of existing ground-based masts to support the weight of new 5G equipment without having to obtain fresh planning consent to do so.

Other restrictions on how close masts can be located to major roads and on the installation of radio equipment cabinets on protected land would also be eased if the proposals come into law.

"The proposals are likely to be welcomed by telecoms infrastructure providers and operators, who will ultimately deliver the infrastructure needed to upgrade the UK’s mobile network," said planning law expert Reza Newton of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law. "They are part of, and need to be seen in, the wider context of the other actions the government is taking to implement the rollout of 5G, including the designation of 5G 'testbeds' and increased funding."

"The government’s intention to cut back the planning system’s red tape when it comes to 5G infrastructure is a positive step, but so is the restraint shown by government. Despite its stated aim to be a global leader in 5G, these proposals are far from extreme and show a healthy respect for concerns over the local impacts of infrastructure proliferation, meaning that any truly significant developments will still require the express grant of planning permission," Newton said.

Digital secretary Nicky Morgan said: "In modern Britain people expect to be connected wherever they are. And so we’re committed to securing widespread mobile coverage and must make sure we have the right planning laws to give the UK the best infrastructure to stay ahead."

In its consultation paper, the government said it will look to increase the height limit that new ground-based masts can be deployed at through permitted development rights. Those rights are subject to prior approval by planning authorities. A 25 metre height limit currently applies in most areas, although a lower limit of 20 metres applies where the masts are deployed on protected land or next to a highway.

The government has not specified what new height limits it could set but has invited stakeholders to give their views on the subject in response to its consultation.

"The ability to site radio equipment higher up on a mast increases the range over which the signals can travel over a geographical area, meaning that fewer masts are needed to cover a particular area," the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government said in their joint consultation paper.

Under the plans, telecoms operators would also be free to increase the width of existing ground-based masts by more than the current limit – one third – without needing to submit a new planning application to do so.

The government explained that "many existing ground-based masts would need to be strengthened by increasing their width to support the additional equipment" needed for providing 5G connectivity. No width restrictions apply to the installation of new ground-based masts.

"This difference in the consenting approach for existing and new masts could disincentivise code operators from upgrading existing sites and result in delays to deployment where planning permission is required," the government said.

The government is also consulting on proposals to make it easier for telecoms operators to install masts on buildings situated near roads. Currently operators must obtain prior consent from planning authorities to install all new masts, while replacements or alterations to existing masts is also subject to planning approval where the completed mast is taller than the mast prior to alteration or replacement and exceeds a height of 20 metres above ground.

Under the new plans, operators could gain new rights to install, replace or alter masts without having to go through the prior approval process for masts located within 20 metres of a highway on buildings standing less than 15 metres in height.

"This proposal would also encourage greater use of existing buildings for the siting of apparatus, reducing the need for new ground-based masts and thereby minimising the overall visual impact of the network infrastructure," the government said.

Other plans that the government has tabled would remove one of the criteria that operators must fulfil to avoid having to seek fresh planning approvals for installing, altering or replacing radio equipment cabinets on others' land.

The permitted development rights in place at the moment only apply if single developments do not exceed 2.5 cubic metres and meet other criteria. The government is consulting on removing this 2.5 cubic metre restriction for deployments of radio equipment, although it confirmed that prior consent would still need to be obtained where the equipment is to be situated on land which is on, or within, a site of special scientific interest.

The government's consultation closes on 4 November.