John Cooke: Infrastructure is essential for Scots’ digital future

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THE Scottish Government’s digital strategy, Scotland’s Digital Future, sets out an ambition for a world-class digital infrastructure by 2020. But planning policy and the attitude of some local authorities are hindering the development of the infrastructure needed for mobile broadband.

In theory, planning policy encourages councils to support the provision of this infrastructure. But the system in Scotland isn’t as supportive as that in England.

Some councils have a split-personality attitude. While economic development departments are busy trying to attract investment, planners are turning down applications for phone masts, usually at the behest of a tiny group of objectors. Businesses aren’t going to relocate to where you can’t get a signal.

There’s hardly a local authority that isn’t on Facebook or Twitter. But the first Scottish council to have a Facebook page has probably the worst record in the UK for turning down mobile phone mast planning applications. What’s the point of having a Facebook page if you make it impossible for people to use it?

Many local councils seem to think that mobile broadband is just for our “new economy” sectors, or for teenagers wanting to download the latest music video. That’s wrong. The Balquhidder B&B and the Portobello plumber need to be online, because their competitors are.

This is also about social inclusion, not just business. Individuals need to be online, for education, to access public services, to shop at the best prices or to find a job.

Scotland has poorer mobile broadband coverage than England, largely because of topography and population density. Improving the planning system won’t change that, but it will mitigate it. We should be making it easier – not harder – for those providing mobile broadband infrastructure, to compensate for the disadvantage Scotland faces because of geography.

Providing world-class connectivity is an essential precondition to ensuring that Scotland can have sustainable economic growth, and a healthy and fair society, in which all her people have the opportunity to realise their potential.

• John Cooke is executive director of the Mobile Operators’ Association.