When villagers recently united to oppose the building of a 52ft mast for one of the main mobile phone networks, Champagne corks popped when it was rejected by council planners.
“It was a huge sense of relief,” said Smarden’s Richard Hemsley, “we want a better signal because it’s so poor here, but not at the cost of the conservation area.”
And therein lies a very modern day challenge.
In a world where fast, reliable mobile connectivity is more desirable than ever, communities must grapple with just what is more important.
Do they, in short, want to miss out on the benefits of the latest generation of high-speed connections or simply preserve their landscape at all costs? Progress was never going to be easy.
Because the reality is that while the 160 good folk of Smarden, a village near Ashford, opposed the plans by the company behind the Three network, there’s every chance it now means they’ll go to the back of the queue when it comes to being able to access better mobile phone coverage and take advantage of the likes of the super-fast 5G network.
And they’re far from alone in rejecting such schemes.
In December, Canterbury City Council threw out plans for a 70ft pole on New Dover Road – one of the main routes in and out of the city – after more than 40 residents complained it would be “unsightly and inappropriate”.
While in Wilmington, near Dartford, opponents railed against a similarly tall structure which, one resident said would be “an eyesore and detract from the rural setting for the area which is used by people for outdoor exercise, dog walkers and horse riders. This tower would be a blight on the area”. It too was rejected.
Although the chances are you may have to hold their feet over hot coals before they publicly admitted it, the big four mobile network operators (Vodafone, O2, Three and EE – all other providers piggy-back on their service) probably quietly think to themselves: “Don’t come crying to us, then, when you can’t access good mobile phone coverage or speedy data.”
As one industry figure put it: “We get MPs who will say ‘why does it need to be in the village, why can’t it be in the field down the road, so it’s out of the way?’. Well the fact is that sheep doesn’t need connectivity, the people in the village do. And we get this all the time.
“People crave coverage but then we have this NIMBY-ism that people don’t want the mast in that area. But if you want to move that mast down the road, then fine, but you won’t have that strength of signal, the capacity or access to the future technologies around the corner.”
And what is currently hoving into view is the all-singing, all-dancing, conspiracy-theory friendly, roll-out of 5G.
Now, just before discussing the pros and cons of the technology, there’s one important issue to bear in mind when you hear of a debate over a 5G pole in your area. Because, currently at least, there is no dedicated roll out of masts or antennas for 5G. If there’s an application going in, it would see 2G, 3G and 4G too – all or which would mean boosted capacity and strength of regular mobile phone reception.
But first, 5G. Chances are you’ll have heard plenty of hype about it. And for good reason. Firstly, it is capable of delivering blisteringly fast online speeds. While 4G delivers top speeds (theoretically, at least, of 150Mbps (megabits per second) – although chances are you’ll be lucky to get much more than 20Mbps depending where you live), 5G takes it to a whole new level and promises top speeds of 1Gbps (gigabits per second) and, on average, speeds of 100-200Mpbs. To put that into context, that’s faster than the majority of the UK’s biggest home broadband providers in the UK.
To provide the context so often quoted, a HD movie downloaded on your phone on a 4G device will take around 15 minutes. On 5G it’s a mere three.
Crucially, the latency rate – which is the speed it takes data to travel from sender to receiver – is almost instantaneous (less than 10 milliseconds to be precise).
And before you say ‘but we struggle even with 4G around these parts’ stay patient – we’ll come to that in a moment.
Where 5G is likely to make a big difference, however, is providing these super fast connections between machines and not just our mobile phones. Autonomous cars, being a fine example, would be made possible given the speed and capacity of 5G. In short, it would enhance what’s known as the ‘Internet of Things’ – machines talking remotely to one another.
It may sound all a bit Terminator-esque, but effectively it would give the technical infrastructure of communities the same sort of interconnectivity you get by linking devices such as lights, speakers and thermostats at home via your wifi network.
You do, however, need to have devices which are 5G compatible to take advantage of the speed benefits. So, for example, only the recent generation mobiles come ‘5G ready’ – and you’ll need both that and local coverage to access it. It’s already available in several Kent towns too.
Oh, and, if you believe the conspiracy nuts, 5G was also the cause of Covid. Sadly, it was mere coincidence it arrived at the same time as the pandemic, according to the World Health Organisation and all reputable scientific experts. But we’ll come to that in a moment.
“This is not a ‘nice to have’ this is critical infrastructure. Just as much as your bus or your train or even your roads…”
More to the point, like it or not, it is going to become, over the years ahead, an essential part of the way the nation operates. Which begs the question, do you want to miss the boat by objecting to its roll-out at the moment?
“It’s not in five years time you’ll feel the benefits,” explains Gareth Elliott, director of policy and communications for Mobile UK, the trade association for the UK’s mobile network operators, “it is now.”
“Local authorities are putting in place digital transformation strategies, local areas want to be connected, people and investors want to be in places with good connectivity. Therefore, getting that underlying infrastructure in place, as soon as possible so you can realise those benefits, is critical to areas.
“This is not a ‘nice to have’ this is critical infrastructure. Just as much as your bus or your train or even your roads.
“If you ask someone involved in building policy of a local area ‘why do you need buses – why are they important’, they explain they link areas, people and businesses together; they allow people access to education and jobs; they bring investment into the area. You tell me what’s the difference between that and digital connectivity?”
He has a point.
Because, of course, it’s easy to dismiss 5G as just the latest fad, rather than something the government believes could spearhead a technological revolution. It wants the roll-out delivered in order for it to help boost productivity – and for the UK to be seen as one of the market leaders.
There’s also the potential for 5G to operate as a high-speed internet provider for homes which existing wired providers don’t provide a service to.
But that comes to a grinding halt when masts are rejected.
And, by mast, it’s more often than not something which looks more like a lamp-post minus the lamp. Or a ‘monopole’ to give them their accurate description.
In urban areas, however, they are more likely to be sited on the top of buildings.
The way the ‘big four’ networks roll-out tend to be that Three and EE share masts, while Vodafone and O2 do likewise. In urban areas, they may have their own separate masts to provide increased capacity.
“Planning is a barrier,” says Mobile UK’s Gareth Elliott. “People not wanting the infrastructure near them is a barrier, awareness and understanding of what the technology does and can do is still very much in need of being improved.
“We need to move beyond this thought that a mobile network is just a mobile phone because the future of society is going to be a lot more about machine-to-machine and things that are connecting to each other and to networks than it is today and that’s the capacity we’re building.
“We need to have that network built now, to be ready for that future.”
But the big question is will that cut much mustard with the people who, it would seem, would rather not have their views tarnished by such a mast or pole.
And that’s before we make a rash sweeping statement that perhaps the older generation – who tend to make up the planning committees at parish, town and local levels, may be of an age where the latest connectivity benefits don’t chime as much as they would, say a 25-year-old.
The bulk of the mobile communications network currently being rolled out is built under what is known as permitted development rights – which, in essence, means there is a presumption in favour of their installations as part of the essential infrastructure they provide.
However, there are restrictions.
Adds Gareth Elliott: “You can’t for example, go from a 10-metre mast to a 20m mast and while we have permitted development rights, sighting and appearance still sits with the council.
“So while there’s a presumption in favour – because the government has said this is critical infrastructure – councils can still reject on the ground that it shouldn’t be there or doesn’t fit with an aesthetic point of view.
“At the present time, if you wanted to add another antenna onto an existing mast that turns it into full planning permission, so that sets an anomaly as it’s easier then to build a new site under permitted development than it is to use an existing site. But changes are afoot that should make it easier to utilise existing sites.”
A report published by estate agents Cluttons in January revealed that a key stumbling point is that many local authorities do no feel they have the information to fully grasp the significance of the roll-out now of the required infrastructure. With less than half of more than 500 councillors quizzed for the report saying their local authority did not have a digital strategy in place to highlight and unlock the potential improved connectivity has.
It quotes Mark Hawthorne, digital connectivity spokesman at the Local Government Association (LGA) as saying: “Many councils are under greater financial pressure as a result of the pandemic and will struggle to prioritise work to remove barriers to digital roll-out over key statutory services.”
This, the report added, “presents a clear downside risk to the government’s delivery ambitions”.
Meanwhile, David Renard, housing and planning spokesman for the LGA, said of plans to change planning laws to ‘turbocharge’ the 5G roll-out as not necessarily the solution.
The changes will see existing mobile masts to be strengthened without prior approval, so they can be upgraded for 5G and shared between mobile operators. This would allow increases to the width of existing masts by up to either 50% or two metres (whichever is greatest) and, in unprotected areas, allow increases in height up to a maximum of 25 metres (previously 20m).
He said: “Access to fast and reliable digital connectivity is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, and councils have been a key player in the roll-out to the hardest to reach areas in the last five years.
“Tackling the digital divide will be important to levelling up in every community, ensuring everyone has the connectivity they need to thrive.
“However, weakening planning control and increasing permitted development rights takes away the ability of residents, businesses and councillors to contribute in a meaningful way to the deployment of new or upgraded masts, sites and infrastructure, and circumvents local plans.
“Tackling the digital divide will be important to levelling up in every community…”
“Instead of pushing for more permitted development, we would like to see the government continue to work with local government and the mobile industry to help the streamlined deployment of infrastructure within the current planning system.
“We are also calling on government to provide funding for councils to put in place a local digital champion, to act as a central contact point to help coordinate local delivery.”
It’s likely to remain a thorny issues for a while yet.
As for 5G safety? Well, there’s certainly been plenty of talk about the risks it brings – including the outlandish claim it is responsible for Covid. But, as ever, plenty of the information quoted today is, insist those both with – and crucially without – a vested interest in its growth, out dated or simply scaremongering-ly wrong.
To clarify, 5G uses short radio waves – a type of electromagnetic radiation. But before you panic at the word ‘radiation’, so do the likes of our TV remote controls and home wifi.
And the level at which 5G is transmitted is well below that of safety guidelines published and governed by the catchy-titled International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).
In short, its what’s termed as non-ionising – which means it does not have the strength to break chemical bonds or remove electrons. Which rather destroys the claims it is slowly making us ill or, as some will have you believe, altering our DNA.
However, to ease concerns, the masts (or poles, whatever word you wish to use) which gather together the antennas to transmit the signal, are deliberately placed high. Not only because it allows for a stronger signal over a wider area (buildings and even trees can prove a barrier), but so it’s nowhere near us.
According to the World Health Organisation?
“To date, and after much research performed,” it says, “no adverse health effect has been causally linked with exposure to wireless technologies. Health-related conclusions are drawn from studies performed across the entire radio spectrum but, so far, only a few studies have been carried out at the frequencies to be used by 5G.
“Tissue heating is the main mechanism of interaction between radiofrequency fields and the human body. Radiofrequency exposure levels from current technologies result in negligible temperature rise in the human body.
“As the frequency increases, there is less penetration into the body tissues and absorption of the energy becomes more confined to the surface of the body. Provided that the overall exposure remains below international guidelines, no consequences for public health are anticipated.”
While Public Health England adds: “It is possible that there may be a small increase in overall exposure to radio waves when 5G is added to an existing network or in a new area. However, the overall exposure is expected to remain low relative to guidelines and, as such, there should be no consequences for public health.”
As for that Covid link? Ofcom, the government-approved communications regulator, has tested the results of electromagnetic field (EMF) measurements at various sites where 5G masts are located across the UK.
It concluded: “At every site, emissions were a small fraction of the levels included in international guidelines (set by ICNIRP).
“The maximum measured at any mobile site was approximately 1.5% of those levels – including signals from other mobile technologies such as 3G and 4G. The highest level from 5G signals specifically was 0.039% of the maximum set out in the international guidelines.”
Hard facts won’t, of course, derail the conspiracy theories, but they may just make you want to reconsider if opposing the benefits 5G will bring to our communities is worthy of future opposition.