Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael wants the UK government to take a “once in a generation” opportunity to boost mobile phone coverage.
Mr Carmichael wants spare capacity on a network used for emergency services to be opened up to all mobile phone users.
He has urged the government minister for policing and fire services to extend the so-called Extended Service Network (ESN) – a UK government-funded investment in EE’s phone network.
In a written response minister Brandon Lewis said there were up to 25 EE ESN sites proposed for Orkney and Shetland.
“In delivering the Emergency Services Network (ESN), the mobile network operator EE will deliver up to 291 new mast sites. The government will deliver approximately 230 further sites (known as the “Extended Area Services” (EAS) sites) in the most remote and rural areas of Great Britain,” Mr Lewis said.
He said the main objective for EAS sites was to give coverage to the emergency services, though the Home Office was working with the Scottish government to see if any proposed locations could be built in a way to broaden it out to operators.
“EE has indicated that it is delivering around 200 new sites in Scotland as part of ESN. In addition, there are 104 sites in Scotland that are being considered as part of the Extended Area Services (EAS). Delivery of these sites is subject to planning permission and the acquisition of land. There are currently up to 25 new EE ESN sites proposed in the constituency of Orkney and Shetland, and one EAS site as part of ESN,” Mr Lewis said.
During a visit to the isles this week Faroese Prime Minister Aksel V Johannesen said that Faroe Telecom hoped to have a major role to play in communications in Shetland through both mobile service delivery and broadband provision, however, the mobile network required licensing by Westminster.
Mr Carmichael claimed ESN sites will only be available to the emergency services and EE customers, even though they were built under a UK government contract, and funded by £1.2 billion of public money.
“This is an opportunity to deliver reliable phone service to a part of the world where it is unlikely ever to be commercially viable for companies to do it on their own,” said Mr Carmichael
“Therefore, to miss an opportunity to allow all companies access government-funded funded signal tower is a mistake. My constituents are desperate for reliable phone signal so to allow some to benefit from government funding and others not is just not sensible.”
Mr Carmichael added: “It is a mistake for the government not to take every possible step to ensure that where mobile phone masts are being built with public money, they should be available to every member of the public.
“In many communities in the Northern Isles their phone signal is barely strong enough to make phone calls let alone benefit from 3G. The UK government when they fund these new masts should ensure that all signal providers can use them.”
However, EE has refuted Mr Carmichael’s claims.
In response, EE said that every site that provides a service to EE customers would also be made available to other network operators to share.
It added the £1.2 billion figure was entire cost of ESN to 2020, and the majority of sites were being paid for by EE rather than through government money.
Howard Jones, EE’s network comms lead, said: “As a matter of course, we are opening up all of our new sites to other operators so that they can provide coverage in these locations if they choose to. Our investment in expanding coverage around Orkney and Shetland will have a huge impact on people in the area, and ensure the availability of the world-leading new Emergency Services Network.”