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New proposals to boost digital infrastructure deployment in the UK

Reforms to mobile infrastructure planning reforms to support the deployment of 5G and extend mobile coverage, plus details of EECC transposition.

The UK Government has announced new law changes to help bring better connectivity to the UK. Yesterday’s announcement is part of the Government’s plans to give the UK the telecoms infrastructure it needs to meet the growing demands of consumers and businesses and to take advantage of future technologies that will help boost the economy. 

European Electronic Communications Code (EECC)

DCMS has set out how it will bring the EECC into UK law, with details on switching, promoting cooperation in hard to reach areas, and new powers for Ofcom in collecting data from operators, and greater consumer protection for people and businesses. The Code largely consists of minor changes to the existing legal framework, new pro-investment measures from the Code will be brought in to support its plans for nationwide gigabit broadband by 2025. 

The proposals include: 

  • Network forecasting - New powers for Ofcom to gather information on operators’ planned network rollout, which it will share with the government to allow better targeting of public investment in poorly-connected areas. It will also publish non-confidential data about where rollout is not planned to help inform industry investment.
  • A focus on gigabit-capable networks - A new broad duty for Ofcom to promote connectivity, access to, and take-up of gigabit-capable networks to help the UK realise its full digital potential. 
  • Promoting cooperation and competition in hard to reach places - In areas where it is costly or difficult to install new networks Ofcom will have the power to impose obligations on operators already present to offer network access or to share equipment such as mobile masts with other operators.
  • Pro-investment regulation - Ofcom’s market review period will be increased from three to five years which will give a longer period of regulatory stability to the telecoms market and more certainty for investors in gigabit broadband.
  • Easier switching for consumers - Under these changes, Gaining Provider Led (GPL) migration system will be extended to all consumers 
  • Better regulation of bundles - Consumers on bundled contracts, which include mobile and broadband but also other services such as video and music streaming, will be able switch providers more easily. This means they will avoid being locked into bundled contracts.

In recognition of the limited time between publication and the date when these measures will come into force and the impact of COVID-19, working with Ofcom, the government has sought to ensure that measures that directly bite upon industry including consumer protection measures will only be enforced at the appropriate time.

Mobile infrastructure planning reforms 

Separately, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) has published its plans to simplify planning rules to speed up 5G rollout and improve rural mobile coverage through changes to the Permitted Development Rights (PDR). The reforms proposed are in response to a public consultation, which closed last November. 

The reforms will allow:

  • New masts to be built taller, subject to prior approval by the planning authority, to deliver better coverage and allow more mobile operators to place equipment on them
  • Existing phone masts to be strengthened without prior approval, so that they can be upgraded for 5G and shared between mobile operators
  • Building-based masts to be placed nearer to highways to support better mobile coverage of the UK’s road networks, subject to prior approval 
  • Cabinets containing radio equipment to be deployed alongside masts, without prior approval, to support new 5G networks

The proposals apply to England only, as devolved nations set their own rules, and yesterday’s announcement will kick off a year-long technical consultation period, including the appropriate environmental protections and other safeguards, and the specific limits to be put on the widths and heights of phone masts, before secondary legislation is brought in.

The intention is clear, in reforming planning laws, Government expects mobile operators to do more: install equipment on existing/strengthened masts to speed up deployment; share infrastructure and therefore increase mobile coverage areas. There is also the expectation that the mobile industry commits to further measures to ensure that the impact of new mobile deployment is minimised. 

Matt Warman, Minister for Digital Infrastructure, yesterday said:

“We’re investing billions so no part of the UK is left behind by the opportunities and economic benefits that faster, more reliable and more secure digital connectivity brings. 

“These changes will help target public funding in hard to reach areas most in need of better broadband. It will also help mobile companies banish rural not-spots by upgrading and sharing their masts.”


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