Committee: Boost mobile signals by changing planning rules to allow taller masts

(Title Image: Engineering & Technology Magazine)

Economy & Infrastructure Committee
Mobile Action Plan Update (pdf)
Published: 24th January 2019

“More can be done to use the levers the Welsh Government has to develop our planning and non-domestic rates regimes to potentially tip the scales of commercial viability (of mobile masts) in favour of further investment in some areas. Where that is not possible, the Welsh Government could play a greater role in encouraging mobile operators to share masts to cut the costs of reducing the number of not-spots and partial not-spots in Wales.”
– Committee Chair, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery)

1. The Welsh Government should change planning rules to allow taller mobile phone masts than presently allowed

While mobile coverage in Wales has increased fairly quickly in a short space of time, the most recent Ofcom figures showed that indoor mobile signals only reached about 67% of the country.

The biggest barrier to improved mobile connectivity is the topography of Wales. BT told the Committee that the best way to deal with this was to change planning rules so the maximum height of phone masts increases to 30 metres – and this might have to be even higher in some places. The average height of masts in Scandinavia was said to be 50 metres.

2. Mobile operators should provide proof that targeted business rate relief would make new masts in rural areas more viable

The Welsh Government were cagey on whether business rate relief would make the installation of new masts more viable. They were  open to the idea of targeted relief but wanted to know whether the loss of income would be offset by improved viability – something they said they had no evidence of.

The Committee said mobile operators – who told them that business rates can make up to 14% of the cost of a rural mast – should make it clear whether targeted business rate relief for these masts would improve their business plans.

3. The Welsh Government needs to work now to meet the challenges of rolling-out 5G

The Committee was in no doubt that Wales is in danger of falling behind on 5G (aka. “Internet of Things”). Wales is slowly catching up on 4G, but there are still problems with 4G connectivity along some major roads. It’s suggested mobile operators could share future infrastructure being installed for the emergency services (called ESMCP) – which is being provided by EE and would boost coverage on the road network.

The Committee was told by the Welsh Government that a number of projects looking at emerging technologies were underway. One such project involved LoRaWAN, which connects home devices to the internet and is being used in assisted housing to notify staff if the behaviour of residents changes (i.e. not using lights, not using a kettle), prompting a check-up visit.

Talks are also underway on improving connectivity in and around the transport network, with improved mobile connectivity included in the new Wales & Borders rail franchise contract.

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