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Ensuring the wide availability of high-speed broadband and mobile infrastructure is a central part of the Government’s National Infrastructure Strategy and levelling up agenda. The Government has a target that gigabit broadband and 4G mobile coverage will be available nationwide by 2030.

Enabling the fast and cost-effective roll-out of new infrastructure by industry is an important policy objective for the Government to achieve these targets.

This paper explains the rules and permissions needed to build broadband and mobile infrastructure and discusses proposals for reforms intended to make building infrastructure easier. Section 6 of this paper covers health concerns associated with mobile masts, including 5G.

UK broadband and mobile coverage

Broadband and mobile coverage statistics are compiled in the Connected Nations reports published by Ofcom, the telecoms regulator. According to data provided for the Autumn 2022 update report, 66.6% of UK premises (residential and business) had access to gigabit-capable broadband.

The Library’s broadband data dashboard allows users to compare broadband coverage in different areas.

Around 92% of the UK landmass has good outdoor 4G mobile coverage from at least one mobile operator. This equates to outdoor mobile coverage for nearly all of the premises in the UK. Ofcom estimated that 5G signal from at least one mobile operator is available in the vicinity of around 50% of premises.

Who decides where to build mobile and broadband infrastructure?

Broadband and mobile telecommunications networks in the UK are rolled out by private companies, often referred to as “operators”.

Telecoms operators take decisions about where and when to roll-out infrastructure based on commercial considerations.

Detailed plans of where infrastructure is located, or future roll-out plans, are not generally publicly available.

What permissions are required to build telecoms infrastructure?

The same general rules for installing telecoms equipment apply to both broadband infrastructure (such as cables and cabinets) and mobile infrastructure (3G, 4G and 5G masts and antennae).

To install infrastructure, telecoms operators may require:

  • planning permission; and
  • an access agreement with the landowner to use the land (such as a wayleave or a lease);
  • permission to conduct street works.

Telecoms operators must also comply with the Electronic Communications Code (Conditions and Restrictions) Regulations 2003 as amended, which sets additional requirements, for example about notifying local authorities in certain circumstances.

Telecommunications is a reserved power, meaning that overall policies and targets are set by the UK Government. Some aspects of infrastructure building, such as planning and building regulations, are devolved responsibilities and vary slightly in each nation.  Others, such as the rules on access agreements, apply UK-wide.

Planning rules and consultation requirements

Designated communications network operators have certain permitted development rights. This means they can build or alter specified infrastructure without having to apply for planning permission from the local planning authority. Permitted development rights derive from general planning permission granted by Parliament.

Since April 2022, new ground-based mobile masts up to 30 metres in height in unprotected areas, and up to 25 metres in protected areas, in England are considered permitted development.

A full application for planning permission is required for any telecoms infrastructure that is not covered by permitted development rights. Prior to deciding a planning application, a local planning authority would seek views from the local community on the proposed project.

Some telecoms infrastructure, such as new ground-based mobile masts, is considered permitted development but requires “prior approval” from the local planning authority regarding its siting and appearance. A local planning authority will also inform local residents of this type of application.

Access agreements and the Electronic Communications Code

Operators who wish to build infrastructure on, under, or over private or public land need permission from the occupier. Wayleaves and leases are the most common forms of access agreement for telecoms infrastructure. They are private legal agreements and the specific terms may differ in each case.

Access agreements are usually entered into consensually between the parties. Ofcom has published a Code of Practice for operators and landowners when negotiating agreements.

If an agreement cannot be reached consensually, the telecoms operator may apply to the court to seek an imposed agreement through powers contained in the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) (Schedule 3A to the Communications Act 2003, as amended).

Reforms to the Electronic Communications Code

The current ECC came into force in December 2017. One significant reform was the way that rent for hosting telecoms equipment on private land is calculated when the court is imposing an agreement: rent is now calculated based on the value of the land to the landowner.

Other changes to the ECC in 2017 included reforms intended to make it easier for telecoms companies to upgrade existing infrastructure and changes to dispute resolution procedures.

Commentators have highlighted that the land valuation framework introduced in 2017 has in some cases led to rents for hosting infrastructure falling dramatically, leading to a ‘freeze’ in the market as landowners have less of an incentive to engage with operators.  There have been several court cases on the interpretation of the ECC since the 2017 reforms. 

Further ECC reforms

In January 2021 the Government opened a consultation on potential further reforms to the ECC in light of these problems. The consultation did not revisit the position on land valuation. Rather, it proposed changes intended to “encourage more collaborative negotiation” and address dispute resolutions procedures.

The Product Security and Telecommunications Act 2022 received Royal Assent on 6 December 2022. It implements some of the reforms to the ECC proposed in the January consultation, including changes to encourage alternative dispute resolution and a new procedure for operators to access land if a landowner is not responsive. The Library briefing on the Act covers the reforms in detail and covers its progress through Parliament.

Reforms to the ECC have always been highly contested. The Government must strike a difficult balance between ensuring digital connectivity is widely available while property rights are respected. Both the mobile industry and property owner organisations have established campaign groups on the issue.

Other areas of reform to help build infrastructure

Other areas of reform to help speed-up infrastructure build include requiring new build properties to have gigabit connections and helping operators to access existing passive infrastructure (underground tunnels) including those of other utility providers such as water pipes.

The Department for Transport has an ongoing programme of work to facilitate street works for utility providers including broadband, another area where operators say they face delays.

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