Telecoms revolution is stalled by people power

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Planning rows over new telephone masts could seriously delay mobile phone companies' introduction of the next-generation "3G" services.

Planning rows over new telephone masts could seriously delay mobile phone companies' introduction of the next-generation "3G" services.

Earlier this week, Hutchison 3G, the only one of the five companies with a 3G licence that does not already have a mobile phone network, admitted it was delaying the launch of its service by two months, from September to November.

That is likely to slip further: industry sources say the five licence operators between them have to erect between 20,000 and 30,000 new masts in the next few months – but local planning objections are proving to be tough obstacles. As many as 50,000 masts may be needed for the entire network; there are already 24,000 installed.

Christine Jake, of the mobile telecoms advisory group at the Federation of the Electronics Industry, which represents the mobile industry, said: "It has the potential to slow the rollout of 3G so that the networks might be able to provide it but users wouldn't be able to make connections, or they'd keep getting dropped links."

That will hold operators back from offering services – and so limit the revenues they can earn. Any delays, said Nigel Dayon, research director at Gartner Europe, could mean that at least one of the companies "fails spectacularly".

The problem has been worsened by two factors: a change by the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs in February, which required that in Scotland and Northern Ireland any new masts should have full planning permission. The perception among many people is that the masts emit more dangerous radiation than handsets.

The telephone companies are reluctant to discuss the problem, for fears of hurting their rocky share prices, and have all given themselves a six-month window in their launch date because of the delays they are suffering.

The problem is similar all over the country, where one source for the FEI said "We have estate agents who spend their day driving around finding the right places to site masts and then it gets tied up in seeking local approval for months and months."

In some cases, the attempts to install new masts actually works against the companies. In Saffron Walden in Essex, local residents have objected strenuously to Friends' School, located near the centre of the town, after receiving a planning application on behalf of Hutchison 3G. The company wanted to put a mast in the school's water tower, which is on its grounds – but residents and parents were then dismayed to discover that masts from Orange, O2 and T-Online had been installed years ago, and that they had 10-year leases and were paying the school £17,500 annually. A number of parents threatened to remove children from the fee-paying school. The school has written saying it will oppose Hutchison's planning application, and will try to end the contracts with the existing companies.

Helen Prudames, a spokeswoman for the anti-masts group FADER – Families Against Dangerous Electronic Radiation – said of local protests: "This is great news for the local community, who we understand are very concerned about health risks."

To the phone companies, offering a 3G service is essential to survival. The "next-generation" service would be able to transmit video and music clips, offer location information correct to a couple of metres, and be "always-on" for internet and email use.

The five operators involved have already invested heavily in 3G: Orange, Vodafone, mm02, One2One and Hutchison Whampoa together paid a total of £22.5 bn when the 3G licences were auctioned off in April 2000. At the time, the internet boom made them seem like a guarantee of untold riches: "experts say that within a couple of years, more people will be connecting to the internet on the move than via a bulky personal computer on a desk at home or work," said the BBC.

But with the furore over 3G masts likely to rumble on, that prediction looks a long way off.