Proposed changes in the law could allow telecoms firms to make phone masts nearly 100ft tall in an effort to wipe out mobile signal blind spots, the Government has said.
Under the plans, new and existing masts could be made 5m (16ft 5in) taller and 2m (6ft 7in) wider than current rules allow, meaning some could reach 30m (98ft) in height.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) says the proposals will also boost the rollout of 5G technology.
It said the expansion would enable more equipment to be fitted to masts as part of efforts to improve phone signals while reducing the need for new ones to be built in rural areas.
Stricter rules will apply in protected areas such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and world heritage sites – with the height capped at 25m (82ft) – but they will include plans to allow building-based masts to be placed closer to main roads to improve signals for road users.
And while existing masts could be updated without prior approval, most new masts will still need to be approved by local authorities.
The plans have been met with cautious support from industry experts and campaign groups.
Sarah Lee, director of policy at the Countryside Alliance campaign group, said it was vital that work was done to “limit the impact on the countryside”.
“With lockdown, we have found more people working from the countryside than ever before, so the need to eradicate crippling ‘not spots’ in rural areas has become even more pressing,” she said.
Ms Lee added that the plans will “connect many rural communities that are suffering due to poor connectivity and this is to be welcomed”, but said there would be a “trade-off” for some communities where extended masts were needed.
“Consultation with residents is always preferred, especially in areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks and we would expect mobile operators to work with those communities to site masts as sensitively as possible to limit the impact on the countryside,” she said.
Kester Mann, director for consumer and connectivity at analyst firm CCS Insight, said the taller masts would allow signals to travel further, meaning “coverage to residents and visitors over a wider area”.
“But it’s vital to strike the right balance between improving connectivity and preserving the beauty of the countryside,” he added.
Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said the aim of the plans was to “level up the country and end the plague of patchy and poor mobile signals in rural communities”.
“Today we are setting out plans to make it easier for mobile firms to transform connectivity in the countryside and propel villages and towns out of the digital dark ages – providing a welcome boost for millions of families, businesses and visitors,” he said.
“These practical changes strike a careful balance between removing unnecessary barriers holding back better coverage, while making sure we protect our precious landscape.”
Mr Dowden added in an article for the Daily Telegraph the changes would allow “maximum use” of existing masts, ensuring “fewer masts in the long run”.
“We want local communities to have control over their own destinies. Our proposals give them the power to direct development in their areas as they see fit,” he wrote.
Hamish MacLeod, director of industry body Mobile UK, said: “We welcome the proposals set out in this consultation, which will provide better certainty and flexibility to technological changes required to build world-class mobile networks.
“We urge the Government that, to assist mobile companies to meet its ambitions targets for deployment, it brings about legislative change as quickly as possible.”
The DCMS confirmed it is also launching a consultation on a code of practice for mobile network operators, which would provide updated guidance on how to work with local authorities on building communications infrastructure.