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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 is that at least 85% of the UK will have a gigabit-capable broadband connection available by 2025 and that most the population has access to a 5G signal by 2027.

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 January 2021: 95% of UK premises had access to superfast broadband connections and 36% of UK premises had access to gigabit-capable broadband. In rural areas only 80% of premises have superfast broadband available. The Library’s broadband data dashboard allows users to compare broadband coverage in different areas.

99% of UK premises have indoor 4G mobile coverage from at least one mobile operator, but 9% of the UK landmass has no mobile coverage from any operator. Around 8% of urban mobile base stations had 5G mobile broadband enabled.

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 (see further below):

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

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 Best Practice on Mobile Network Development in England (November 2016). 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.

The Government intends to bring reforms to planning rules for mobile masts in England, for example to allow taller masts within permitted development rights.

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 in 2017

The current ECC came into force in December 2017. On 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 reforms to the ECC 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.

In the May 2021 Queen’s Speech the Government said that it would bring legislation to reform the ECC to through a Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill.

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 telecoms, 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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