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Ensuing 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 mobile masts and health concerns, including 5G.

UK broadband and mobile coverage

As of September 2021: 96% of UK premises had access to a superfast broadband connection and 46% of UK premises had access to gigabit-capable broadband according to telecoms regulator, Ofcom. In rural areas 83% of homes have superfast broadband available. The Library’s broadband data dashboard allows users to compare broadband coverage in different areas.

99% of UK premises have outdoor 4G mobile coverage from at least one mobile operator, but around 8% of the UK landmass has no mobile coverage from any operator. 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 (telecoms) 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).

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 but planning and building regulations are devolved responsibilities. Therefore, the rules on access agreements apply UK-wide but planning rules vary slightly in each nation.

Guidelines for the siting and appearance of mobile infrastructure are provided in the Code of practice for wireless network development in England (March 2022). The Code of Practice also covers expectations for community consultation regarding mobile infrastructure.

Planning issues

Designated communications network operators have certain permitted development rights. This means designated operators can build certain infrastructure without having to apply for separate planning permission from the local planning authority. Permitted development rights derive from a general planning permission granted by Parliament, rather than from permission granted by the local planning authority.

“Prior approval” from the local planning authority regarding the siting and appearance of the development is required in certain circumstances, including all ground-based mobile masts.

A full application for planning permission would be required for any infrastructure that does not meet the permitted development criteria.

From 4 April 2022, new rules for mobile masts in England will come into force. Changes include allowing allow taller and wider masts within permitted development rights. The secondary legislation for these changes was made on 10 March 2022.

Access agreements and the Electronic Communications Code

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 2017 changes to land valuation has in some cases led to rents for hosting infrastructure reduce dramatically, leading to an unwillingness for landowners to engage with operators and a ‘freeze’ in the market.  There have been several court cases on the interpretation of the ECC since the 2017 reforms. 

Further ECC reforms are to follow

In January 2021 the Government opened a consultation on potential further reforms to the ECC in light of these problems. These proposals do not include revisiting the position on land valuation. The changes aim to “encourage more collaborative negotiation” and address dispute resolutions procedures.

The Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill was introduced to Parliament in November 2021. The Bill would implement 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 Bill covers the reforms in detail and tracks the progress of the Bill through the Commons.

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 potential reform to help speed-up infrastructure build include helping operators to access existing passive infrastructure (underground tunnels) including those of other utility providers such as water pipes.

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

Reforms regarding fibre broadband to new build properties are covered in the Library paper, Gigabit-broadband: Government policy and targets

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