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Exclusive: operators urge mast planning law revamp over 5G rollout fears

Alex Yau
March 2, 2017

The call follows criticisms of the UK’s current mobile infrastructure being unable to support the rollout of 5G from 2020

Mobile operators have urged the government to revamp planning laws following criticism the UK’s current mobile infrastructure cannot sufficiently support the rollout of 5G from 2020.

The calls follow this month’s Westminster eForum conference: ‘UK telecoms sector: services, competition and the impact of Brexit.’

Former Ofcom director of spectrum policy, mobile and auctions Graham Louth claimed the current mast network is unable to handle the 3.4GHz spectrum bands required for 5G.

He said infrastructure would need to be increased tenfold to support 5G, meaning more than half a million mobile masts and base stations will be required in the UK by 2020. EE, Vodafone and O2 have around 35,000 mobile sites combined.

Critical relationships

General counsel and director of regulatory affairs of Three Stephen Lerner said: “A joined up approach across local and national governments will be vital to ensure that UK consumers and businesses benefit from 5G at the earliest possible opportunity.

“Recent changes to the planning regime are welcome but more work is needed to develop relationships between operators and a wider range of site owners than exist today. These relationships will be critical to ensure that MNOs can add both the number and the type of sites required for 5G.”

O2 CEO Mark Evans also called on the UK government to make improvements to the current planning laws that would drive further investment.

“An option the Prime Minister should take is develop a supportive planning regime that encourages the faster and more cost effective rollout of new mobile infrastructure. This is vital because in London alone, mobile operators will need to install hundreds of thousands of new transmitters to deliver 5G.

“In reality, this means improved planning laws, the Electronics Communications Code and opening up BT’s cable network to allow operators to invest in the digital infrastructure of tomorrow.”

Key challenges

Louth said issues with planning are blocking operators from achieving the 5G rollout target, despite £70 million being spent by BT, Huawei and Samsung. In 2015, digital minister Ed Vaizey announced regulatory changes around mast access at a cost of £270 million to the networks.

“There are key challenges the government must address to make 5G a success. We will need more base stations, at least 10 times what we currently have. This could include much smaller equipment which can be stuck on a building or put on a lamp post.

“Mobile operators have a big challenge.A lot of these stations will still need planning approval and site rental costs will have to be lower. This is a huge burden for operators and it needs to be addressed by the government.”

An EE spokesperson added: “We’re committed to leading in 5G – we are actively preparing for it and are playing a leading role in the academic research and testing that will finalise what it really is. There’s so much more mileage in 4G, and consumers have a lot to look forward to.

“What is certain is the UK won’t be a leader in 5G without strong 4G foundation networks. That’s why we continue to invest and expand our 4G coverage and capacity. 5G will offer a unique opportunity to deliver a high performance, near-ubiquitous, fully-converged network, leveraging our leadership across fixed and mobile in the UK.

“However, 5G will require a step change in the deployment of this infrastructure, and continued changes to the policy and regulation that governs our rollout and maintenance. As a rough estimation, 5G could need hundreds of thousands of small cells per operator to support it. This requires continued evaluation and evolution of planning policies, use of government buildings and infrastructure.

World leader

A spokesperson for the Department of Culture, Media & Sport added: “The government wants the UK to be a world leader in 5G and is laying the foundations for a successful infrastructure and support 5G trials.

“This will ensure the country gets the benefits of new 5G networks early on, including faster, more reliable connections and new services like connected cars and IoT.”

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