Action plan to improve access

Ewing pledges better mobile coverage

Fergus EwingBusinesses have been promised long-required improvements to mobile coverage in Scotland after an agreement between the Scottish government and operators.

The two will work together on a Mobile Action Plan to step up investment in 4G mobile in Scotland, and ultimately, to support 5G-ready infrastructure across the country.

Although responsibility for mobile coverage lies primarily with Westminster, Holyrood does have some powers, mainly over costs, such as business rates relief through to more direct interventions, such as investing in the construction of new or enhanced infrastructure.

They are now eligible for rates relief for new masts in non-commercial areas, initially as a pilot scheme on parts of Arran and Cairngorm.

The operators say that tackling bottlenecks in the planning regime will be a key factor in achieving the plan’s goals.

The government says it is committed to further reform of the planning system and later this year “will consult on detailed legislative proposals for the further relaxation of planning controls to support commercial investment in digital connectivity.”

It is also working with the industry and other key stakeholders to prepare new online advice on planning for telecommunications.

However, the plan recognises ongoing limitations and hurdles, not least the high cost of eliminating so-called “notspots” where mobile signals are inaccessible.

It states: “Significant progress is being made towards meeting 4G coverage obligations and the 90% geographic coverage agreement. Nevertheless, we collectively recognise that once commercial deployment is complete, coverage gaps will still remain in some of the most rural and remote areas.

“[The Scottish Government] also recognises that the costs of deploying new infrastructure to address mobile “notspots” is often prohibitively high, particularly when set against the limited revenues that can be generated where there are relatively few users.”

Cabinet Secretary for Connectivity Fergus Ewing said: “Ensuring high quality digital connectivity for people across Scotland is a priority for the Scottish Government. That is why we are doing everything we can to improve the case for investment in Scotland, despite this being the responsibility of the UK Government.

“We have set out an ambition for the availability of world class digital connectivity across the country, and we recognise that improved mobile connectivity is an integral part of delivering that ambition.

“We have been working closely with the UK mobile network operators, and they have demonstrated a clear commitment to maximising coverage. Already significant progress is being made towards meeting 4G coverage obligations, but we collectively recognise that coverage gaps will still remain in some of the most rural and remote areas.

“We will identify where those gaps will be after the commercial rollout, and together with the industry will jointly design technology solutions and business models that will allow services to be delivered by operators in a sustainable way.”

Mobile operators welcome Mobile Action Plan

Chief executive of EE Marc Allera said: “EE has set a clear ambition to cover 95% of UK geography with 4G by 2020, with significant investment planned to cover many of the most rural areas of Scotland.

Dave Dyson, Three Chief Executive Officer, said: “We welcome the Scottish Government’s proposals to extend mobile phone coverage. The changes to the planning regime should act as a benchmark for other parts of the UK which want to improve rural connectivity.”

Chief Technology Officer of O2 Brendan O’Reilly said: “O2 welcomes this Mobile Action Plan and the on-going dialogue we have with the Scottish Government to help our investment in Scotland’s mobile infrastructure proceed further and faster.”

Jeroen Hoencamp, Chief Executive of Vodafone UK said: “Vodafone welcomes the constructive dialogue we have had with the Scottish Government which has resulted in the Mobile Action Plan. Vodafone is investing heavily to improve mobile coverage in Scotland and bring the mobile internet to the vast majority of Scottish people, in some rural areas for the first time but we need to work in partnership to ensure the Scottish people get the best possible mobile coverage.

“There are a number of initiatives in the plan which will be helpful with planning being the most obvious devolved policy matter in need of further reform. We can’t improve coverage without building or upgrading our mobile network. What we need is a planning regime that allows us to build a network that suits the geography of the particular area in question to maximise coverage which will mean taller masts in some areas. We welcome reform that helps us to deliver better coverage and service to our Scottish customers”

Alongside today’s announcement, the Scottish Government is also publishing new research which provides evidence-based recommendations on extended Permitted Development Rights for telecoms infrastructure and on updating planning advice. We will consult publicly this year on proposals for changes to planning legislation.

Key partners in the Mobile Action Plan include the Digital team at Scottish Futures Trust, which provides technical, practical and policy support; and Highlands & Islands Enterprise, which has been liaising with operators and planning authorities to ensure that commercial rollout across the Highlands and Islands proceeds as smoothly as possible.

There are 7 key areas of immediate action:

  • Non-Domestic rates
  • Planning
  • Public sector assets
  • Innovative mobile solutions
  • Emergency services mobile communications programme
  • Mobile infill
  • 5G-ready infrastructure

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