NBN drives relaxation of 'low-impact' antenna laws

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NBN drives relaxation of 'low-impact' antenna laws

Govt unveils plans for massive regulatory shake-up.

The government has quietly proposed the biggest shake-up of rules for mobile phone antenna installation in 20 years, with NBN Co behind several of the proposed changes.

The Communications department late Friday laid out a large number of proposed changes to what is classified as a “low-impact facility” under telecommunications law.

These are rules relied on by telcos to bypass state and local planning laws, mostly to deploy new mobile antennas.

They are already contentious and often criticised by residents groups as a way to deploy mobile infrastructure without consulting local communities.

The government is now proposing a major shake-up that would expand the type of antennas and poles that can be installed under low-impact rules, at the behest of NBN Co.

Other changes would allow larger diameter dishes to be deployed, as well as tower height extensions in commercially zoned areas for the first time.

NBN Co is seeking several changes to the rules as it hopes to install new types of fixed wireless antennas, known as lens antennas, which are up to 4 cubic metres in size and protrude up to 5m from the structure they are attached to.

“Where these antennas will be attached to existing towers or other types of existing structures, NBN Co would like to be able to install them as low-impact facilities,” the Communications department said.

“Lens antennas are able to provide more focused coverage and capacity from a single elevation than a standard panel antenna.

“This is useful when the demand for the facility is coming from a single direction. In this instance, only one lens antenna may be required on a tower, with no need to install any panel antennas.”

In addition, NBN Co is pushing to have poles up to 12m high and 500mm wide classified as low-impact. These would be used to “support telecommunications and electricity cabling” for the NBN.

If approved, the rules would be restricted to essentially NBN Co. Those taking advantage would need a “national network, used, or for use, for the high speed carriage of communications on a wholesale-only and non-discriminatory basis".

Having infrastructure classified as low-impact could allow NBN Co to deploy it much faster than is currently possible.

Outside of the changes sought for the NBN, there are a number of other size and height extensions being proposed, including:

  • Satellite and radiocommunications dishes up to 2.4m diameter being permissible in rural and industrial areas, up from 1.8m.
  • A 2m extension to the height at which antennas can protrude above buildings. This would increase from 3m to 5m.
  • The allowance of any small cell technologies to be installed, as long as the equipment fits a certain size limit.
  • Tower heights could be extended by up to 5m in commercial zones for the first time.

What may also cause concern are proposed changes to the amount of time that landowners and those around them will have to dispute a planned installation under the low-impact rules.

Currently, telcos must give the landowner at least 10 business days’ notice of its intentions, and objections must be lodged no later than five days before the works are scheduled to begin.

If changes are allowed, those who want to object will have only five business days from their “receipt of a notice” of the telco’s plans.

The Communications department is accepting submissions on its plans until July 21.

Communications Minister Mitch Fifield suggested that the changes, if approved, “could result in economic and social productivity benefits for consumers, worth over $50 million per year, and regulatory cost savings to industry and government worth over $100 million per year".

He said those numbers were drawn from research by the telecommunications industry, rather than from a government source.

“The changes seek to clarify the operation of some existing powers and immunities, allow for the deployment of new types of network infrastructure, make changes to some existing facility types, and streamline notification and objection rules,” he said in a statement.

The changes would not affect applications by telcos to put up new, freestanding mobile phone towers. These are governed by state and territory planning laws and would be no easier to build should federal laws be changed.

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