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5G masts will be strapped to lampposts and traffic lights – once £4m project figures out who owns them flings cash at software solution to local planning problem

New 5G cell sites will be sprouting from streetlights, traffic signals, and CCTV poles across the country as part of Britain's plans to spread low-latency mobile connectivity to the masses.

The £4m scheme, first floated in September last year, has seen eight companies winning £500k contracts to "explore how digital software can help simplify local authority processes when telecoms operators request access to publicly owned buildings and curbside infrastructure."

Rather than directly strapping them to any nearby public pole, the competition's winners will be automating the process of engaging with Britain's labyrinthine planning system. Current laws mean local councils, with all the variation and inconsistency that comes with having hundreds of them around the nation, decide what can be built on their patches.

Digital infrastructure minister Julia Lopez said in a statement: "Currently, mobile companies are finding it difficult to get the data they need to check that a lamppost, bus shelter or public building is suitable for hosting their kit. These eight pilots will help solve this by modernising the way local authorities and operators work together in a way that ultimately delivers faster, more reliable mobile coverage for millions of people."

Areas picked for the scheme include Angus, Dundee, Fife, Perth and Kinross in Scotland, as well as Tyneside, Sunderland, Dudley, Wolverhampton, Somerset, Dorset, and "several other areas across England" in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport's words.

Disputes over sites for mobile masts and the rents payable by landlords are a constant feature of mobile network operations in Britain ever since the first network infrastructure was deployed locally.

All the way back in 2009 the Church of England declared that mobile mast firms wanting to place their masts on church spires would have to negotiate with the local parish council. Anywhere else on church land had a standard-form lease which both sides signed but not, it seemed, the houses of worship themselves.

Fast forward 12 years and Transport for London was desperately trying to fend off mast surveyors by implausibly claiming to a judge that EE and Three contractors might "upload some virus" to the London Underground control centre.

Disputes over mast placement and rent payable have led to the creation of a specific industry code on who pays what and for how long, as a 2019 tribunal case between Vodafone and the University of London illustrated.

Meanwhile, anti-5G conspiracy theorists have been quite fiery in their opposition to the new technology. Some set a phone mast in Birmingham on fire a couple of years ago, claiming it was some kind of mind control ray sponsored by the Illuminati and Bill Gates. Two French monks were charged in September with doing something similar in France, telling local cops they wanted "to warn the population against the harmful effects of 5G."

5G is no more harmful than 4G LTE, which is pretty harmless unless you try physically eating the networking equipment. Even then the risk is from electric shock or indigestion. ®

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