Mobile Phone Base Stations/Masts

What are mobile phone base stations/ masts?

Mobile telephony uses a radio wave network. Mobile phones are small radio transmitters and receivers, typically with a range of a few miles. To send or receive calls, a handset must be within range of a mobile phone base station (sometimes referred to as a mast). A base station is a fixed radio receiver/transmitter with antennas mounted either on free-standing masts or on buildings.

When a call is made within range of a base station, the base station relays the call to a switching centre, either by underground cable or by microwave, which routes it to the correct destination. There are currently in excess of 80 million mobile phones in use in the UK, all of which need to be in range of a base station to operate. Therefore more base stations will be needed in areas of high mobile usage. Base stations may be only a few hundred metres apart in large cities, for example, but several kilometers apart in rural areas.

The area of coverage around each base station is called a cell, and each cell in a cellular network must use a different set of frequencies from a neighbouring cell in order to avoid interference or 'jamming'. Cells can be one of three types – macrocells, microcells, or picocells – depending on their size and the power output of the antenna.

Concerns about mobile phone base stations relate both to their environmental impact and any possible health impact of the radiofrequency (RF) emissions from them.


The development of mobile phone technology is still relatively recent, and consequently, so are its associated planning and health concerns.

A mobile phone mast counts as a 'development' for planning purposes, and is therefore subject to planning permission. However, the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 introduced a substantial exception to this rule, granting a general planning permission for masts of less than 15 metres in height erected by a network operator licensed by the the former DTI (later replaced by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

From 1999, under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) Order 1999, operators seeking to exercise this power were required to apply to the local planning authority for a decision on whether the siting and appearance of the development required the authority's prior approval. Within 42 days, during which time a public notice had to be displayed at the site, local authorities could reject a proposal if it would have a serious impact on amenity, and operators could appeal against this decision to the Secretary of State.

Public concern about the health impact of mobile phones and base stations/masts led to the appointment of an expert committee, chaired by Sir William Stewart, in 2000. The Stewart Report found no evidence for handsets or base stations having negative health effects, but made a number of recommendations: the report suggested that the impact of base stations near houses, schools and other buildings could have a negative environmental and psychological effect on people, and recommended that all base stations, regardless of height, should be subject to full planning permission.

In June 2000, the Government responded by advising local authorities to prevent the 'beam of greatest intensity' from a base station's antenna from falling on school premises, but insisted that the report had not called for the removal of masts from schools.

Following further consultations, in March 2001 the Government issued revised planning guidelines, 'Planning Policy Guidance 8: Telecommunications', which reinforced public consultation arrangements for small masts, increased the prior approval period to 56 days, and insisted that school governors must be consulted on any proposals for masts on or near schools or colleges. The new PPG came into force in August 2001.

A Code of Best Practice on Mobile Phone Network Development was introduced in 2002 and a review into the operation and effectiveness of the Code was published in March 2006 by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. This report concluded that the Code had "significantly improved" the process of planning for mobile network development and that where operators and their agents complied with the Code, it was considered to be working well. But the review also recommended that the Code be revised to reflect the on-going evolution of network coverage requirements and that the identification of an independent adjudication body be considered to deal with complaints from any party.


Concerns remain that radiofrequency emissions from mobile phone masts may cause adverse health effects, despite the Stewart Report finding no evidence to support this. Stewart insisted that emissions from most base stations/masts were well below existing guidelines, but suggested that the fears about the health impact of base stations/masts may themselves be producing negative health effects.

The ambiguity of the Stewart Report did little to assuage public fears. Although unable to find evidence of health damage, the report warned there was evidence to suggest that radiofrequency emissions from handsets had "subtle effects" on the brain, and called for children's access to phones to be restricted. Overall, Stewart recommended a precautionary approach to the technology.

However, prior evidence did exist about the health effects caused by base stations. Exposure to the immediate vicinity of base stations was understood to potentially cause foetal abnormalities through heating, but the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology concluded in 1998 that their position atop masts minimised any risk.

A study carried out by researchers at the University of Essex and published in the journal 'Environmental Health Perspectives' in 2007 concluded that short-term exposure to a typical GSM base station-like signal did not affect well-being or physiological functions. The three year study of 44 electro-sensitive volunteers and 114 control volunteers found that the sensitive individuals experienced symptoms when they thought the signal was switched on, when in fact it was off, suggesting a psychological basis for the symptoms.

But the group Mast Sanity, which campaigns for the safe siting of mobile phone masts, remained unconvinced, claiming that "cancer clusters, clusters of ill-health, depression and even suicide" had been found in proximity to the masts and other wireless sources of microwave radiation. In June 2008 the group wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to "instruct the Chief Medical Officer and the Health Protection Agency to issue warnings to the British public and ensure that public exposure limits are reduced immediately".

The independent Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation (AGNIR) published its 14th report in 2012 on the Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields. The report's main conclusion was that, although a substantial amount of research had been conducted in this area, there was no convincing evidence that RF field exposures below guideline levels caused health effects in adults or children. These “guideline levels” are those of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, which already form the basis of public health protection in the UK and in many other countries.

The Health Protection Agency stated that in light of the report's conclusion, a recommendation to follow the ICNIRP guidelines would remain central to HPA’s advice on exposures to RF fields.

The siting of mobile phone masts has frequently attracted controversy, with concerns raised about their environmental impact.

Public hostility was considerably exacerbated by the use of the general planning permission under the 1995 Order. Some communities found that masts had been erected almost overnight with little or no consultation.

The Government's reforms of 1999 and 2001 tried to defuse the issue, urging network operators to share masts, remove unnecessary infrastructure and consult more thoroughly. Improving technology also made it possible for the industry to use more and more sub-15 metre masts.

In September 2007 Ofcom announced proposals for consultation to open up the radio spectrum bands used by mobile phone operators Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile and Orange for their 2G networks. Ofcom proposed to remove the restriction to 2G, freeing up the spectrum to a much wider range of uses including high-speed mobile broadband services using 3G and noted that in particular, "future 3G services rolled out using 900MHz would require far fewer mobile phone masts than if higher frequencies were used".

However, the lack of mobile phone coverage in rural areas has been criticised by rural businesses and communities. According to a report from the Commission for Rural Communities published in November 2010, some rural areas in the UK still did not have basic 2G (second-generation) coverage. In these so-called 'not-spots' it is impossible to make or maintain a mobile phone call, or send or receive texts. The report pointed out that a mobile phone "is now considered a necessity, as opposed to a lifestyle choice", with more emergency calls made on mobiles than landlines and that these 'not-spots' therefore "significantly impact those they affect beyond simple inconvenience."

Ofcom acknowledged the problem, identifying 'not-spots' as an area for further work in its 2009 statement on mobile sector assessment and citing the issue as a "priority area" in the 2010/11 Annual Plan.

In October 2011, the Chancellor announced that the Government would invest up to £150m in the Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP) as part of the National Infrastructure Plan to help stimulate economic growth. Mobile phone coverage to many homes and businesses in 'not-spots' is to be extended by building new mobile sites. The DCMS was reported to be in discussions with all four mobile operators to provide mobile voice services from all MIP sites.

According to Ofcom, the government will secure a supplier and whichever supplier wins the contract will be responsible for designing, building and operating the new infrastructure. Additional coverage is expected to be in place by 2015 with benefits starting to be realised from 2013.

MIP also aims to improve mobile coverage on the UK's major roads, with ten key roads in England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland having been identified as having significant stretches of complete 'not-spots'.


Proportion of adults who personally own/use a mobile phone in the UK  – 92% (Q1 2012)
Proportion of adults who live in a home that has a mobile phone but no landline phone in the UK  – 15% (Q1 2012)
Number of mobile subscriptions in the UK  – 81.6m (Q4 2011)
Percentage of mobile subscriptions in the UK that are postpaid/contract  – 49% (Q4 2011)
Number of SMS and MMS sent per person per month -200 (Q4 2011)

Source: Ofcom – 2012


"It will be important to carry forward the research recommendations made by AGNIR, especially to gain understanding of longer term effects. HPA will continue to monitor carefully the emerging scientific evidence and will not hesitate to provide any necessary advice. HPA will undertake another comprehensive review of the scientific evidence and its advice when sufficient new evidence has accumulated."

HPA Response to the AGNIR Report on the Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields – 2012