A new National Environmental Standard for Telecommunication Facilities (NESTF 2016) will come into effect on 1 January 2017. The NESFT 2016 will replace the current National Environmental Standard for Telecommunication Facilities 2008 (NESTF 2008), and is intended to support the development of a wider range of telecommunication infrastructure, particularly Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB), the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI), and fourth generation mobile infrastructure. The Government has stated that the new NES also forms part of the “broader package” of RMA reforms that together constitute a more nationally consistent approach to Environmental Regulation.
A stated driver for the NESFT 2016 is that the UFB, RBI and fourth generation mobile infrastructure programmes require the installation of a new kind of infrastructure throughout New Zealand, which was not anticipated by the NESFT 2008, nor many district and regional plans. As a result, the UFB, RBI and mobile infrastructure and installation activities are not consistently provided for in planning documents – which generally means that these activities require resource consent.
In response to these issues, the Government initially released a suite of proposed amendments to the 2008 NESTF, which were open for public consultation in early 2015. The Government sought input from telecommunications industry and council representatives via a Technical Advisory Group. As the feedback was analysed it became clear that the necessary changes in this area were better implemented through a new NES, rather than amendments to the NESTF 2008. No doubt the cost, delay and uncertainty associated with the resource consent process played a role in telecommunications operators’ support for the new NES.
The NESFT 2016:
- Widens the scope of permitted activities, such that a broader range of activities will now comply with the prescribed standard for installing and operating telecommunications facilities. This means network operators will no longer have to obtain resource consent to install frequently deployed infrastructure, including small cell units, street cabinets, light pole antennas and underground/overhead cabling. As a result, telecommunications operators will benefit from national consistency, due to considerable time and cost savings in determining compliance across the many district plans which can be relevant.
- Amends existing permitted activities by (for example) expanding the area in which a replacement utility can be located in a road reserve, and increasing the size envelope for antennas and replacement utility structures.
- Allows for controls to address adverse effects of telecommunications facilities, by providing for a wider range of special protection areas with identified values (such as historic heritage, ecological, landscape or visual amenity) that local authorities can protect through their district plans.
- Prescribes more demanding standards for the footprint, width, height, grouping and noise (amongst other factors) generated by telecommunications infrastructure within or adjoining certain zones (such as rural and residential zones). For example, an antenna on multi-storey buildings in residential areas will only be permitted above 15m height, and in all zones, cannot extend beyond 5m from the top of the building; and new masts and antennas in rural areas will be subject to a 50m setback from any buildings used for residential or educational purposes.
- Provides that earthworks for installation of facilities are expressly covered by the NES. However, we note that a range of exceptions apply in ‘special places’ (such as within the dripline of a tree(s) protected by district plan rules, a historic heritage site, a visual amenity landscape, a significant habitat for indigenous vegetation or fauna, and outstanding natural feature or landscape, rivers or lakes, or place adjoining a coastal marine area), and in rural areas. In those areas additional controls apply, including preparation of a management plan. Regional controls on earthworks continue to apply.
- Refers to the latest radio frequency measurement standard (AS/NZS 2772.2:2016), although does not change the acceptable levels of radio frequency exposure.
- Ensures that telecommunications facilities that do not comply with the standards set out in the NES will require resource consent.
The NES is intended to reduce costs, and increase access to better quality communications technologies, including the infrastructure required to access broadband under the Government’s UFB Programme, RBI, and 4G network. The telecommunications industry has estimated that these changes could save up to $14,000 per resource consent application, $100,000 in annual district plan reviews and submissions, and over $200,000 per appeal. One network operator estimated that it spent up to $1 million participating in the Auckland Unitary Plan process.
While significant cost savings to industry are anticipated, other costs are identified, however. The section 32 evaluation report states that the more permissive NESFT 2016 will allow for increased visual amenity effects, “due to the increased visual dominance and clutter created by the expanded range of telecommunications infrastructure that will be permitted.”
It is important to bear in mind that even if a regulated activity is permitted under the NES, s.43A(5) allows a district plan to impose additional terms and conditions on an activity in order to address adverse effects beyond the requirements of an NES. Accordingly, there may be a further round of involvement by the telecommunications industry in planning responses to the NES.
 Resource Management (National Environmental Standards for Telecommunication Facilities) Regulations 2016.
 Press release, “New RMA standard for telco facilities”, 24 November 2016, https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/new-rma-standard-telco-facilities.
 Section 32 Report p43.