New Digital Secretary launches 5G competition to spark ‘tech revolution in countryside communities’

Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan has launched a £30 million UK-wide competition to spark a ‘tech revolution in countryside communities’ and help rural Britain seize the opportunities of 5G technology.

Up to ten rural locations will be chosen to run innovative trials of 5G applications and stimulate commercial investment in 5G technology which offers mobile speeds 10 to 20 times faster than previous generations.

The Rural Connected Communities competition is the latest wave of £200 million funding to pioneer 5G testbeds across the country and deliver the benefits of the highest speeds of mobile connectivity available.

The technology is already being used in the Orkney Islands to remotely monitor salmon fisheries and improve efficiency of wind farms, and in Shropshire, the 5G trials are showing how farming can be transformed through targeted crop-spraying and soil analysis with drones and tractors.

The new funding will build on projects like these and trial other uses of 5G in rural communities to help drive business growth, enhance lives and encourage innovation.

Digital Secretary Nicky Morgan said: “The British countryside has always been a hotbed of pioneering industries and we’re making sure our rural communities aren’t left behind in the digital age.

“We’re investing millions so the whole country can grasp the opportunities and economic benefits of next generation 5G technology.

“In modern Britain people expect to be connected wherever they are. And so we’re committed to securing widespread mobile coverage and must make sure we have the right planning laws to give the UK the best infrastructure to stay ahead.”

The Government has today also launched a consultation on proposals to simplify planning rules to improve rural mobile coverage.

Reforming planning laws for mobile infrastructure is part of the Prime Minister’s plan to ‘level-up’ connectivity for communities across the UK, further support the roll-out of 5G and boost our economy. The consultation on potential changes to permitted development rights for mobile infrastructure in England includes proposals on:

  • changing the permitted height of new masts to deliver better mobile coverage, promote mast sharing and minimise the need to build more infrastructure;
  • allowing existing ground-based masts to be strengthened without prior approval to enable sites to be upgraded for 5G and for mast sharing;
  • deploying radio equipment cabinets on protected and unprotected land without prior approval, excluding sites of special scientific interest;
  • allowing building-based masts nearer to roads to support 5G and increase mobile coverage.

The Government is also seeking views on what measures industry could offer to mitigate the impact of any new infrastructure, including assurances of a greater use of existing sites and the removal of redundant masts.

Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Rt Hon Esther McVey MP said: “We’re committed to delivering the homes people across the country need, and that includes delivering the right infrastructure such as broadband connectivity and good mobile coverage. There is nothing more frustrating than moving into your new home to find signal is poor.

“That’s why we are proposing to simplify planning rules for installing the latest mobile technology – helping to extend coverage and banish more of those signal blackspots, particularly for those living in rural areas.”

Mark Bridgeman, Deputy President of the Country Land and Business Association, said: “The vast potential of the rural economy will only be fulfilled when everyone in the countryside has full mobile connectivity, and we welcome DCMS’s intent to deliver the Prime Minister’s promise of internet access for all.

The current situation, where only 67% of the country can access a decent signal, is unacceptable and Government is right to focus on planning reform as a means to removing current barriers but there must also be a balance between the interests of landowners and mobile operators.

Hamish MacLeod, Director at Mobile UK, said: “The current planning system does not support the fast, efficient rollout of 5G technology that is vital for the UK’s digital economy. We welcome the Government looking at simplifying planning processes to deliver better connectivity, and we stand ready to work in partnership to ensure these much-needed reforms happen as quickly as possible.”

5G is considered to be one of the drivers of the so-called ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, which will spawn new industries in healthcare, automotive and energy. It underpins innovative technologies from drones to AI and will be part of the smart cities and infrastructure – powering automated services – of the future.

The news comes a day after the Scottish Government called for more investment in Scottish 5G infrastructure.

Ms Morgan is also reportedly keen on a raft of new policy measures including adapting current planning rules which prohibit mobile telephone masts exceeding 25 metres in height on public land and encouraging telecommunications firms to invest in shared masts, allowing phone users to switch more easily between providers to find the best signal.

Tom Watson, the shadow culture secretary, said: “This funding falls far short of the ambitious rollout we need to boost our digital infrastructure nationwide. 5G and full fibre will be the basis of the innovative, green technologies that will underpin our future economy, but the UK’s digital infrastructure is lagging embarrassingly behind.”