Scores of taller phone masts could be built across the British countryside as part of government plans to eliminate mobile reception blind spots.
The digital secretary, Nicky Morgan, said she wanted to shake up planning restrictions to allow mobile phone networks to build ground-based masts exceeding the current rules prohibiting structures over 25 metres on public land.
The move came as the government launched a competition for rural areas to host tests of groundbreaking 5G applications as part of plans for a wider rollout of the communications technology.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Morgan said plans also included firms investing in shared masts, allowing phone users to switch between providers to find the best signal.
She said: “To give such a proposal the best chance of success we need to make it easier for industry to build, share and upgrade mobile infrastructure. This means planning rules will be relaxed to enable existing ground-based masts to be strengthened without prior approval to enable sites to be upgraded for 5G and for mast-sharing.”
She stressed the need to “get the balance right” between preserving the “sacrosanct” countryside and improving connectivity.
The £30m 5G competition will select up to 10 rural locations to run trials of 5G-related technology, which would involve superfast 5G test networks being set up.
The government said it hoped the programme, named the Rural Connected Communities competition, could help stimulate investment in 5G and help countryside communities take advantage of the technology.
Similar schemes have already been set up in Orkney to remotely monitor salmon fisheries and improve the efficiency of wind farms, and in Shropshire, where 5G trials have been used to help the farming industry with targeted crop-spraying and soil analysis with drones and tractors.
Morgan said: “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.”
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.
“This government must take bolder, faster action to deliver the digital infrastructure we need.”