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IMPROVING CONNECTIVITY  SPEECH TO THE HOLYROOD CONNECT MOBILE & FLEXIBLE WORKING CONFERENCE: 28th OCTOBER 2013

 

Introduction

Good afternoon. I am John Cooke, Executive Director of the Mobile Operators Association.

The MOA represents the four UK mobile network operators – EE (the company that runs EE, Orange, & T-Mobile in the UK) Telefónica UK, Three UK, and Vodafone – on health, planning, and related issues.  I should probably add that we at the MOA work from home; so mobile and flexible working is something I practice as well as preach.

It seems to me that digital connectivity is particularly important in a Scottish context, given that we are - outwith the central belt - a sparsely-populated country, with long distances between our towns and cities. And mobile is also particularly important in Scotland, because wireless technologies such as mobile broadband are likely to be more cost effective to deploy than fixed line technologies in many of our rural areas.

We‘ve already heard today about some of the benefits of mobile and flexible working; and about some of the cultural and organizational issues that need to be addressed to make it a reality. However, the main focus of my remarks will be on the network infrastructure that needs to be in place to provide the signal to enable mobile working to take place.

In doing so, I’m going to look at the current position on connectivity in Scotland –if you like to establish the baseline from which we are seeking to improve. When I do, we’ll see that mobile connectivity is affected by different factors in different places. I’ll look at what is already being done to improve connectivity. And then I’ll examine what else needs to be done, by industry itself, by government, and by local authorities.  

 

So, where are we now?

On several measures, mobile connectivity in Scotland is actually pretty good. In terms of the percentage of the population able to get a signal, 99.3% of people can get a 2G signal, giving voice and text messaging; and 96.6% can get 3G, which lets you access the Internet from a mobile device. That’s good by international standards, and is only slightly lower that the position in England, where the corresponding figures are 99.8% and 99.5%. Those figures are from Ofcom, our regulator, by the way, not from industry.

On the other hand, a recent Scottish Government report - ‘Mobile Performance and Coverage in Scotland’ - said that “significant improvements will be required before mobile communications in Scotland can fully meet customers’ aspirations”.

 

Where Are We Now- Rural Scotland?

In some rural areas, such as Argyll & Bute, the Borders, or the Highlands and Islands, you

will find ‘not-spots’ where there isn’t any signal.

The reason for that isn’t surprising. In order for mobile networks to function, they need a substantial network of base stations (or ‘masts’) to provide sufficient radio coverage. And providing such a network in some rural areas isn’t economically viable on a commercial basis. Rural Scotland has low population density. And in areas with low population density, the revenue generated by mobile traffic supported by base stations is almost always less than the operating costs of those base stations. To make matters worse, in rural areas, the capital costs of providing infrastructure tend to be higher than in urban areas. That’s true of all rural areas. But to cap it all, if you add mountains, of which we have more than a few, infrastructure costs go up even further.

That said, operators do deploy more infrastructure per capita in rural areas. Indeed, they industry probably spend about 50% more per capita on infrastructure in Scotland than they do in England.  

Turning to urban Scotland, the picture is, in general, reasonably good. However, even here, the recent Scottish Government report also identified some areas of poorer coverage in some of our cities. The cause there clearly isn’t low population density.

What’s happening is this: each base station covers a limited geographical area, and can only handle a certain amount of traffic at any one time.  So the issue in parts of Edinburgh or Glasgow, for example, is that there’s been huge, rapid growth in the volume of mobile traffic. That’s not people making more calls – it’s more and more people accessing the Internet from a smartphone or tablet – perhaps viewing something on YouTube or BBC iPlayer, for example. Over half the mobile phones in Scotland are now smartphones and a quarter of us have tablets. All this puts demands for additional capacity on mobile networks.

Let’s take the example of the New Town, here in Edinburgh. This is exactly the sort of area where demand for mobile data is growing strongly. That’s because it has high population density and is relatively affluent. In addition to housing, it also has retail and office premises, bringing more people into the area. And it also attracts large numbers of tourists. Three or four years ago, visitors who got off the train at Waverley might have consulted an A to Z for directions. Today, they’ll look at Google maps on their smartphones instead. Again, that’s more demand for additional capacity.

 

Improving Connectivity

So if that’s the current picture, and bearing in mind that mobile connectivity is affected by different factors in different places, how do we go about improving things?

In remote rural areas, where no coverage is currently available, there is the UK-Government Mobile Infrastructure Project (MIP).  This provides capital funding for the infrastructure. The mobile network operators will then provide coverage from the sites, and fund their operating costs. The project will extend coverage to a number of areas here in Scotland, with Aberdeenshire among the areas that stand to benefit most. The first Scottish sites will go ‘live’ by the end of this year. It won’t solve all the problems in rural areas, but it will certainly

help.   Apart from the MIP, all the operators are also upgrading their networks here in Scotland. That includes both rolling out the new 4G superfast mobile broadband services, and upgrading existing 2G and 3G networks. In urban areas, such as the New Town, operators have been putting in extra capacity to cope with growing demand.

However, it takes around a year from identifying the need for a new site to getting it up and running. And the planning system slows things down. So improving coverage isn’t something that the industry can do on its own – it requires local councils and Scottish Government to play their part, too.

 

Public Policy – The Role of National Government

When it comes to national policy, the Scottish Government’s overall digital policy, set out in

‘Scotland’s Digital Future’ – clearly states the benefits and opportunities offered by better connectivity, and is in my view, forward-looking and appropriately ambitious.

However, the picture when it comes to planning policy is more mixed. In terms of high-level, overarching principles, Scottish Planning policy, as set out in SPP, for example, is supportive of telecommunications development.

However, at the detailed, technical level, the Scottish planning regime is more restrictive than those in England or in Wales. That compounds the disadvantage that Scotland faces because of geography. That’s a disincentive to investment in telecoms infrastructure; and it slows the deployment of such infrastructure, even when the investment does go ahead.

The good news is that the report ‘Mobile Performance and Coverage in Scotland’ recommended that Scottish Government should review the planning system to ensure that it is proportionate and does not unduly inhibit the roll-out of mobile networks, particularly 4G. I hope that ministers take that on board.

 

Public Policy – The Role of Local Government

That leaves local authorities.   Mobile networks are a crucial piece of national infrastructure; but they are made up

of hundreds of small-scale, local developments, that is individual mobile phone base stations (or ‘masts’). So determining planning applications happens at the local level. And while some local authorities are supportive, not all are, and some appear downright hostile.

Those that do not support telecoms infrastructure development often do so on the basis of

‘we’d like the coverage, but we don’t want masts’. Some people say we should site masts away from built-up areas. But we have to put masts near where people want to use their mobile devices. If you don’t have a mast there, you won’t get a signal. It’s as simple as that. That’s not a result of industry’s business models, or of national policy, but rather it’s a function of the laws of physics.

 

Conclusion

Mobile and flexible working offers huge potential benefits to Scotland. The catch-22 is that although our geography means that those benefits are potentially even greater than in more densely-populated countries; but it also means that providing the infrastructure to facilitate connectivity is more expensive.

All the operators are also upgrading their networks here in Scotland. However, improving connectivity isn’t something that the industry can do on its own – it requires local councils and Scottish Government to play their part, too.

In particular, the Scottish planning system needs to be better. It is more restrictive than the corresponding systems in England or Wales. That’s a disincentive to investment in telecoms infrastructure, and slows the deployment of such infrastructure, even when the investment does go ahead.

Local councillors should worry less about a minority of vociferous objectors, and think instead about the economic and social implications of not having full coverage or capacity in an area.

And my final word is to quote from the leading article in the Herald, on 17th September this year: “If we want more coverage, we must be prepared to put up with more masts”.