A £150 million government investment aimed at improving mobile phone coverage in rural places such as Shetland will not go far enough to maintain the vital infrastructure needed for an adequate service.
That was the message from Shetland Telecom project manager Marvin Smith after the inaugural meeting this week of the Northern Isles digital forum.
Speaking after 40 people attended the Islesburgh Community Centre on Tuesday, Mr Smith said he welcomed the six-figure investment by the UK government, but he said more needed to be done if annoying “not-spots” in some places were to be eliminated in the long term.
Last year the coalition government announced plans to improve coverage across the UK by developing additional masts in rural areas. Chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander said the aim was to enable rural users to have access not only to the 2G network, but 3G, while also providing a foundation for a future 4G upgrade.
Mr Smith said mobile phone operators had proved reluctant to set up masts in the isles given the relatively low numbers of customers they were likely to attract here – despite an apparent willingness from some operators to do business in the isles.
“The biggest concern for folk has been the mobile phone coverage. There was a scheme which allowed £150 million to help with mobile phone coverage in rural areas. But £150 million is not going to go very far, and the biggest problem for mobile phone operators is putting up a mast and getting the required revenue streams.
“If you are having to pay for connectivity to the mast and also carry out repairs and maintenance, £150 million for infrastructure isn’t actually that much. It’s early days. Nobody knows how it is going to be spent … but it’s not cheap.”
Mr Smith added a “longer conversation” needed to be had, perhaps at a future forum meeting, to help get round the problem.
But he said he was “encouraged” that a representative from the mobile phone industry had shown a willingness to visit the isles.
Richard Rumbelow, head of corporate affairs at mobile network Everything Everywhere, was another of the delegates attending Islesburgh this week. He was in the isles representing an association of mobile phone operators.
Also attending was Stuart Robertson from Highlands and Islands Enterprise. He told the meeting Shetland could not rely solely on private enterprise.
“I think the secret is the Highlands and Islands as a whole needs some level of public investment, as well as what the industry can bring.
“Unfortunately we have a small population over a large area and it doesn’t make for very good business for the private sector telecoms companies, so a mixture of private sector investment and from the public sector can certainly secure the types of technologies that we would like to see.
“It’s just a case of trying to get the funding in place, and the projects in place, to get these delivered.”
Tuesday’s forum had been organised by Isles MP Alistair Carmichael who receives frequent complaints about the level of broadband coverage in Shetland.
Mr Carmichael was keen to highlight an extra £10 million funding pot – budgeted as part of a £68 million block of UK government funding – to support high speed broadband roll out in Scotland.
Mr Carmichael said: “We’ve known for years that improving connectivity and getting access to digital services has been of crucial importance both socially and economically.
“What has changed is there is now a very different approach in government. For years we were told competition will provide, but frankly for us it never was going to provide and, surprise surprise, it has not.
“There is now a significant amount of public money going into the provision of digital services to meet some targets. It’s now important that, the money being there, the community should have a say in what sort of services they want out of it.”
Mr Smith added the need for better broadband was becoming increasingly apparent.
“Everybody is looking for super-fast connections. There are a few people sitting in extremely low spots or ‘not-spots’ and are not able to get broadband at all.”