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Government wants taller masts to boost UK’s mobile coverage

Monday, July 13th 2015 by Ellen Branagh

The government plans to relax planning rules allowing taller mobile masts as part of efforts to improve the UK’s digital infrastructure.

In a document outlining efforts to improve Britain’s productivity, chancellor George Osborne and business secretary Sajid Javid said too many businesses and homes are being hampered by slow connections.

The document, called ‘Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation’, outlines a series of government aims for the country’s digital infrastructure, including broadband and mobile.

They include proposals to reform planning rules on taller mobile masts, hoped to make it easier to improve signal across the country.

Currently ‘permitted development rights’ – which allow certain things to be built without a planning application – only cover masts up to 15m tall, but the plans would see these rights extended to taller masts.

The government has launched a review of what changes can be made to the planning system to support the development of mobile infrastructure.

On Friday it announced a ‘Call for Evidence’ on the issue, asking for evidence on how the planning system currently works for mobile deployment.

'Scale of the challenge'

It comes alongside its commitments to hold mobile operators to a legally-binding agreement to make sure 90% of the UK landmass will have voice and text coverage by 2017, and a pledge to continue to invest to deliver coverage for the final 0.3-0.4% of UK premises that do not have it.

According to Ofcom, there were more than 83m mobile subscriptions in the UK in the last year, with 57% of adults using mobiles to access the internet compared to 32% in 2011.

The Fixing the Foundations document, which refers to the UK’s ‘long-term productivity problem’, refers to a ‘world-class digital infrastructure in every part of the UK’.

According to the document, this includes the government’s aim to ensure superfast broadband (speeds of at least 24Mbps) is available to 95% of UK homes and businesses by 2017, as well as supporting ‘near universal 4G and ultrafast (at least 100Mbps) broadband coverage.

The plans to reform planning rules on taller masts are part of efforts to make it cheaper and easier to roll out fixed and mobile infrastructure, it said.

The Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG), which advises the government on broadband, said it was right to recognise the “scale of the challenge” it faces in driving productivity, and in acknowledging the importance of digital connectivity.

In a statement, the BSG said: “Deploying telecoms infrastructure in the UK is still more expensive than many of our European counterparts so there is clearly a need to try to lower this cost.

“Not all of this cost is directly financial either. It is just as important to strive to make the planning process as efficient and predictable as possible – rightly taking into account both environment concerns as well as the importance that digital connectivity plays in people’s lives.”

It said it is already “actively engaged” with the government in these areas, and said it will provide input on the consultation into plans to extend development rights to taller mobile masts.

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