Scotland’s lack of mobile coverage ‘really hard to solve’, says Ofcom chief

Innovative technology could help the UK Government hit its mobile coverage target, in addition to the telecommunication regulator’s proposals, an Ofcom boss has told MSPs.

Scotland's mountainous regions provide a barrier for the telecommunications industry. Picture: TSPL

The UK Government wants 95% of the country to be covered but this will not be achieved solely through Ofcom’s proposed mobile coverage obligation plans in an auction of radio frequency for mobiles, chief technology officer Mansoor Hanif said.

The regulator has proposed targets ranging from at least 90% geographic coverage for England to 74% in Scotland.

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Mr Hanif told the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee: “I think we are very clear that we are not going to get to the 95%.”

Following the meeting, Ofcom clarified Mr Hanif was referring to the regulator’s proposed mobile coverage obligation.

The current deadline for the government target, which is expected to boost UK GDP by £75 billion, is the end of 2022.

Mr Hanif said the problem of parts of the country having no mobile signal at all is “really hard to solve”.

“The reality is, it is improving but clearly not fast enough and demands are increasing,” he added.

“The Government has set a target for 95% geographical coverage, which is a revolution in the way we measure coverage because before we would only target coverage to where people actually lived, to houses.”

Mr Hanif said 95% coverage is achievable and Ofcom is pursing a stepped approach through its current spectrum auction, which involves “reasonable targets which operators can reach” of at least 90% in England and Northern Ireland, 83% in Wales and 74% in Scotland.

He added: “The next thing we can do seeing where the gap is ... a lot of those areas are national parks, like the Cairngorms, a lot of those are mountains.

“I just flew over them yesterday and I was thinking what a challenge that is. It can be cracked but only through innovation.”

Technological developments such as low orbit satellites and device-to-device technology could help go further, he said.

“I don’t really think anyone wants to build thousands of ugly towers in national parks, “ he added.

“If there are smarter ways to achieve that (coverage) through innovation then I think we should be looking at that.”

Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee member Stewart Stevenson criticised Ofcom’s decision to reduce the geographical target in its coverage obligations from at least 76% in Scotland to at least 74%.

The target for England and Northern Ireland was also reduced by 2%, while Wales remained static.

Mr Stevenson asked: “Isn’t it is absolutely perverse that we are seeing the target for coverage being reduced at the present when in fact it should be increased?”

The SNP MSP said his Banffshire home gets “0G”, adding: “I would say that we should have no improvements in telephony services in cities, of any kind, including 5G, until we get decent rural coverage.”

Ofcom’s regulatory affairs manager Jonathan Ruff said: “More needs to be done to improve rural coverage.

“The 74% target we’ve proposed for Scotland ... is the largest increase of any of the UK nations.

“Scotland is coming from a lower point, I think the average 4G coverage is around 50% of landmass.”

He said the “vast majority” of the value of the spectrum auction is going to Scotland and Ofcom has had to weigh up the costs and benefits for operators.

Mr Ruff added: “If we don’t get the balance right on setting that coverage target there is a real risk that the spectrum obligation would go unsold.”