UK to follow Europe’s lead on small cell planning permission exemption

The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has confirmed it plans to follow European Commission rules to make small cells exempt from planning permission.

Earlier this week, the European Commission announced it had adopted standardised design and technical specifications for small cells, while also confirming the installation of this equipment would be exempt from local authority planning permission. While there will be localised nuances to how this regulation is implemented, this is a win for the telecoms industry, which has been pleading with Governments to reduce bureaucratic hurdles for network deployment.

With the UK now no-longer a part of the European Union, there was perhaps a question mark as to how these rules would be adopted, but DCMS has confirmed it fully intends to mirror these regulations in a post-Brexit UK. 21 December 2020 is the current deadline, and it does appear this timeline is being honoured thus far.

What is worth noting is that this will be a UK law not simply a carbon copy of the European rules. DCMS has run a consultation on how to implement the European Electronic Communications Code in the UK, which has concluded. We have been told the findings and final opinion of the Department will be published ‘soon’.

The full documentation for the consultation can be read here, though the section focused on the deployment of small cells and exemptions from planning permission is an interesting one, as some aspects fall outside the jurisdiction of DCMS.

“A small number of EECC provisions concern matters that are partly or wholly outside the remit or responsibility of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport,” the consultation states.

“With regard to article 57 of the EECC (‘Deployment and operation of small-area wireless access points’), we are currently working with the planning departments within Government and the Devolved Administrations to identify the most efficient way of implementing the provision.”

This will have to be a cross-department effort, which is worrying, but it is a very important step forward.

Rapid deployment is essential for an ambitious Government, as while 5G will create new revenues, the fortunes will not be evenly distributed around the world. The nations who scale networks fastest can nurture and cultivate new companies, products and services before launching on the international markets.

4G made Silicon Valley a sponge for digital revenues, with international giants such as Netflix and Google redirecting the wealth back to the US economy, and the same will happen in the 5G economy. This is the reason there is a race to 5G; there will be winner and losers, there will be new companies and fortunes and there will be wealth creation concentration clusters in certain parts of the world.

As mentioned before, these rules should be welcomed by the telecoms industry as it addresses one of the major hurdles for network deployment. Should a telecoms executive be asked what is slowing down the 5G revolution, some might say spectrum availability, others would point to supply chain uncertainty, though the bureaucratic nightmare which is dealing with local authorities is certainly one which will feature high on the list.

Local authorities hardly have the most efficient or seamless procedures, while the planning permission process could be viewed as somewhat archaic. These are cumbersome rules, designed for a bygone era, as with pretty much all regulation in the telecoms environment, and are not conducive for rapid deployment of 5G infrastructure.

The industry still needs to figure out how to fund the expensive 5G mission, as well as how to sell it to consumers and how to use it with enterprise customers, but at least some of the red tape seems to have been scythed away with the introduction of these new rules.

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