The Government published a consultation on 19 April 2021, on extending permitted development rights for electronic communications code operators and has now published the summary of the responses. The aim of the consultation is to encourage the deployment of 5G networks and extend mobile coverage, especially in rural areas where initiatives like fibre optic rollout have been slower than the Government hoped.
As part of this, the Government is in response proposing to allow for the strengthening of existing masts up to specified limits to enable sites to be upgraded for 5G and for mast sharing without prior approval. Is this a beneficial efficiency drive or are we to see the dawn of 'super mast' hubs?
In theory, if we are able to use fewer sites, have more equipment on them and operators sharing existing sites, this will reduce the visual burden of our network infrastructure that needs greater capacity to cope with 5G and fibre optic rollouts. This is particularly pertinent with 5G where masts need to be relatively close together as the range of the wavelength is poor. This wavelength issue increases the number of 5G masts required and there may still be a significant visual impact, even with existing site sharing and improvement.
The new changes are also unlikely to offer other benefits to landowners. The Electronic Communications Code already contains provisions meaning that masts can be shared between networks without the landowner charging an additional fee, meaning landowners are unlikely to be able to financially benefit from multiple operators sharing their site. The new permitted development change is only likely to make sharing easier and increase potential headaches without any additional financial compensation.
Moreover, it is usual (although not always the case) for the cost of relocating equipment, when the landowner wants to redevelop, to be borne by the landowner. If the landowner therefore has to move more complicated or extensive equipment that has been installed at a site because of the changes; these new permitted development rights may make it more expensive for landowners to move operators off of their land if they want to redevelop it.
It may be the case that the country's network infrastructure needs improving. It cannot however be overlooked that in doing so, the government is creating more potential hassle for landowners and landowners will not necessarily get more money to compensate them for it. If anything, it could cost them more.