When you check into the Monachyle Mhor, a hotel nestled on the banks of the Loch Voil in rural Scotland, you are told that if you want to make a mobile phone call, you need to stand by a tree with a swing outside of the main building. And even then, you will only get connected if you are lucky.
The problems of guests at that Scottish hotel are repeated once you get outside of built up areas. For those who live in cities, problems with coverage happen rarely and usually involve a momentary disconnection from 3G. But outside of major population centres, even making a basic phone call can be an issue. According to the latest figures from Ofcom, around a quarter of the UK’s geography cannot get a 3G signal from any operator.
While 4G will offer a boon to consumers, with promises that 98% of the population will get a next generation mobile signal, that is merely a population promise, not geographical promise. And if 98% of the population will be covered, that still leaves 1.25 million people unable to access 4G, which is more than the entire population of Glasgow.
So what can be done? Vodafone has taken Mobile to look at a two-year trial in Kinlochard, at the heart of Scotland’s Trossachs National Park, where open femto cells have been placed on buildings to bring 3G coverage where previously none existed. Kinlochard was one of 12 remote areas, including a trial on the Shetland Isles, that were selected by Vodafone out of 170 applicants.
The project was set up to see whether Vodafone could bring mobile coverage to the regions and then see if it could work financially. Placing a conventional mast in a place of natural beauty is unlikely because of its high cost and expected antipathy of residents.
John McCracken, Vodafone’s regional network manager for Scotland, says the project is a means of filling in the gaps of regional coverage. While each of the trials only provides a 3G Vodafone signal, he says in the longer term it could provide coverage for rivals as well as 4G. But he says: ‘I don’t think there would be a tech reason for why we would [share with rivals], more of a commercial reason.’
The effects on Kinlochard have meant mobile access where formerly there was none. Community councillor Fiona McEwan says she first knew the trial was working when the village choir had a performance interrupted by several members’ phones ringing. She says: ‘There was an aspiration for mobile from a safety point of view as well as a social one. Kids in particular felt disenfranchised because they weren’t able to go onto Facebook.’
That’s not to say it has gone hitch free. The operator failed to send out an initial information pack to the village, meaning residents did not realise they needed a 3G device to get coverage. Some residents complained to Vodafone about patchy coverage and at most, only eight connections can take place at the same time using the existing technology. Vodafone says it is speaking to each of the trials to improve the service in the future.
But beyond the trial, Vodafone is cagey about its plans, although it says it is not going to remove the units at the existing trial sites. But it does need to make the technology work, in terms of coverage and in terms of cost. Where the operator is looking for this to pay off is in that all important net promoter score metric. Happier customers mean fewer acquisition costs. If the trial proves to be a success, then that tree at the Monachyle Mhor could be a little less popular in future.
Government ‘needs to do more’ on rural coverage, claims MP
Expensive public sector projects, such as the HS2 train line, need to be reviewed in favour of looking at improving rural mobile coverage, a Labour MP has claimed.
Anne Maguire (pictured, left) represents the Stirling constituency that includes Kinlochard. She welcomes the Vodafone plan, arguing there is greater public demand for better coverage. She says: ‘As people’s expectations rise about IT, their frustrations also rise.’
Maguire repeated shadow chancellor Ed Balls’s concerns that government projects such as the £42.6bn HS2 rail-link are too costly and its benefits should be reexamined. Others have argued that greater broadband provision, whether fixed or mobile, would be a more cost effective use of public cash than the rail link between London and Birmingham.
When asked if she agreed with Balls, Maguire says: ‘I think there’s a sound argument to look at the infrastructure that we are seeing here. It’s having a major impact and if that means depriving other major infrastructure projects, those are decisions that have to be reviewed.’