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This page explains the rules around telegraph poles deployed as part of broadband networks. It covers whether broadband companies (also called ‘operators’) need to consult with planning authorities and residents, and whether they should install cables underground or utilise existing infrastructure instead.

The information on planning permission applies to England (although similar rules exist in Scotland and in Wales). The other information is UK-wide.

Do broadband companies need planning permission to put up telegraph poles?

Generally, planning permission is not required to put up telegraph poles.

The installation, replacement, and alteration of some communications infrastructure is covered by permitted development rights (PDRs). PDRs allow changes to a building or land without full planning permission from the local planning authority (LPA). Part 16 of The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, as amended, sets out the types of communications infrastructure to which PDRs apply.

Telegraph poles can be installed under permitted development rules.

Some types of communications infrastructure that are covered by PDRs (such as mobile phone masts) require “prior approval” from the LPA. Prior approval is a slimmed-down version of the planning application process that gives the LPA the opportunity to determine (in consultation with residents) whether the development should be permitted. However, broadband infrastructure (poles, cabinets, and cables) does not need prior approval either.

Do broadband companies have to consult with the local authority before putting up telegraph poles?

Broadband companies in the UK have additional obligations under the Electronic Communications Code (Conditions and Restrictions) Regulations 2003, as amended. Under these Regulations, companies are required to give 28 days’ notice to the LPA before they install communications infrastructure (such as telegraph poles) in a new area . LPAs can use this time to raise any concerns about the proposals.

LPAs may also set conditions that they want the company to comply with, although companies are not required to accept the conditions if they are “unreasonable in all the circumstances” (regulation 5(3)).

Do broadband companies have to consult with residents before putting up telegraph poles?

The 2003 Regulations do not require broadband companies to consult with local residents.

The government’s 2016 cabinet and pole siting code of practice (which applies in England) states that companies should consult with local residents, although it is voluntary. Broadband companies are not legally required to follow the code of practice and Ofcom, the regulator, does not have powers to enforce it.

Do broadband companies have to install cables underground instead of using poles?

It is a commercial decision for operators whether to install cables underground or on poles. Installing cables underground can be more expensive and more disruptive due to the engineering works required.

The 2003 Regulations state that companies should, in most cases, install cables underground (rather than on telegraph poles) where it is “reasonably practicable” to do so. However, following amendments introduced in 2013 this does not apply to cables that are part of a high-speed broadband network unless the area is a national nature reserve or site of special scientific interest.

The 2013 changes also clarified that broadband cables do not need to be installed underground in conservation areas.

Do broadband companies have to use existing infrastructure rather than putting up new poles?

Broadband companies do not have to use existing infrastructure, although there are regulations designed to encourage infrastructure sharing.

Sharing infrastructure would involve using existing telegraph poles or underground ducts, rather than installing new ones. This requires a commercial agreement between the broadband company and the owner of the existing infrastructure (which may be another broadband company).

It is not always technically feasible to utilise existing infrastructure. For example, underground ducts may not have spare capacity to house more cables.

The 2003 Regulations state that companies should share infrastructure “where practicable”. Additionally, under the Communications (Access to Infrastructure) Regulations 2016, infrastructure owners must respond to reasonable requests for infrastructure access.

Ofcom requires Openreach (the part of BT that operates its network infrastructure) to allow competitors to rent access to their ducts and poles on fair and reasonable terms. KCOM, historically the monopoly provider in Hull, has a similar obligation. These measures are designed to help new entrants compete with the incumbents by reducing the cost of building new broadband networks. Other companies do not have an equivalent obligation.

It is for the broadband company and infrastructure owner to decide whether in any given deployment it is “practicable” to share apparatus. There is no legal obligation to utilise existing apparatus in all cases and broadband companies are not required to demonstrate (to Ofcom or the local planning authority, for example) that it is not practicable to share infrastructure before works commence.

Can cables cross over private land?

Companies have a right to run cables between poles, including where the cable passes over private land.

Cables can pass over land “adjacent to or in the vicinity of” telegraph poles without the permission of the landowner as long as:

  • The operator does not need to enter the land.
  • The cable is at least 3 metres above ground, or 2 metres above a building.
  • The cable does not interfere with any business (defined as “trade, profession or employment”) for which the land is used.

What can residents do if they are concerned?

In the first instance, residents should contact the broadband company or their LPA if they have complaints about how telegraph poles are being deployed. There are examples of companies halting pole deployments in response to local opposition (although this does not guarantee that they will lay cables underground instead: the area may simply be left out of the company’s network build plans).

Ofcom is responsible for enforcing the 2003 Regulations, including conditions set by LPAs, and the sharing obligations on Openreach and KCOM. LPAs and members of the public can contact Ofcom if they have concerns about compliance.

Disputes about the ECC (apart from the 2003 Regulations) are a matter for the courts, not Ofcom. Residents should seek legal advice if they have questions about their rights.

Further reading

House of Commons Library, Building broadband and mobile infrastructure, December 2022

About the author: Adam Clark is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in telecommunications and cyber.

The Commons Library does not intend the information in our constituency casework articles to address the specific circumstances of any particular individual. We have published it to support the work of MPs. You should not rely upon it as legal or professional advice, or as a substitute for it. We do not accept any liability whatsoever for any errors, omissions or misstatements contained herein. You should consult a suitably qualified professional if you require specific advice or information. Read our briefing for information about sources of legal advice and help.