UK government moves forward on Shared Rural Network scheme

Virtually a matter of hours before the UK parliament was dissolved for summer recess, the UK government has announced new legislation that it says will accelerate its plans to improve mobile coverage in all parts of the UK, especially in rural and non-metropolitan areas.

In a written statement to the House of Commons, Matt Warman, parliamentary under-secretary of state for digital infrastructure at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, published the government’s response to a consultation on in-principle proposed reforms to permitted development rights in England that are designed to boost the roll-out of mobile networks.

The government said that it was essential that the planning system continues to support the delivery of the mobile infrastructure that we need. The UK government says it is now satisfied that the proposed reforms in the consultation are necessary to support its ambitions for the deployment of 5G and extending mobile coverage, particularly in rural areas.

Warman added that in taking forward the proposals, it would ensure that the appropriate environmental protections and other safeguards are in place to mitigate the impact of new mobile infrastructure.

The background to the announcement started in October 2019, when the UK government launched the £1.3bn Shared Rural Network (SRN), which proposed to wipe “not-spots” from the map, providing what the government claims will be “high-quality” 4G coverage to 95% of the UK by 2025. This followed years of complaints by mobile consumers and businesses that the UK’s major political parties had consistently failed rural businesses by lacking a credible solution to improve mobile 4G and 5G coverage.

Just weeks after the December 2019 General Election, the UK government introduced in February 2020 a £200m scheme to boost industrial and rural 5G in order to help key areas seize the potential of modern technology, in particular 5G networks, and fulfil the government’s commitment to “level-up” infrastructure across the UK.

The first part of the scheme saw £200m invested in testbeds and trials across the country to explore new ways that 5G can boost business growth and productivity, improve the lives of people in rural areas and maximise the productivity benefits of new technologies.

Subject to a technical consultation on the detail of the proposals, including the appropriate environmental protections and other safeguards, the government will now take forward the proposals consulted on to principally enable the deployment of radio equipment housing, such as equipment cabinets, on land without requiring prior approval, up to specified limits and excluding on sites of special scientific interest, to support 5G deployment.

In addition, the proposals are designed to strengthen existing masts up to specified limits to enable sites to be upgraded for 5G and for mast sharing without prior approval and enable the deployment of building-based masts nearer to highways to support deployment of 5G and extend mobile coverage, subject to prior approval and specified limits. It will also aim to enable higher new masts to deliver better mobile coverage, and mast sharing, subject to prior approval and specified limits.

The UK government is confident the changes will benefit communities and businesses and provide greater regulatory certainty to incentivise investment in mobile infrastructure. It will now develop a technical consultation, working with mobile industry representatives and relevant regulators including Ofcom, which gave the SRN an official green-light in March 2020, representatives of local planning authorities and those representing protected areas, to ensure the appropriate environmental protections and other safeguards are in place to mitigate the impact of new mobile infrastructure.

And, while it said the mobile industry has a vital role to play in delivering these improvements and bringing forward the infrastructure required, the statement noted that the UK government expected it to commit to further measures and assurances to ensure that the impact of new mobile deployment is minimised.

BT said in January 2020 that it wants its prior investments in UK mobile infrastructure to be recognised in formulating operators’ investment in the Shared Rural Network.