Wester Ross mobile problems highlight lack of investment

BY MICHAEL RUSSELL
michael.russell@whfp.co.uk

Long term lack of investment by mobile phone firms is to blame for the shocking state of the infrastructure in the Highlands and Islands, one observer from Wester Ross has claimed.

Alex Gray (pictured) is station manager of Two Lochs Radio based in Gairloch and a former BBC engineer. He said the widespread poor coverage from Vodafone, 02 and other operators is accompanied by a complete lack of information about when service will be restored. The loss of signal has affected Kinlochewe, Poolewe, Gairloch, Aultbea and Ullapool.

Mr Gray said: “I am pretty sure the underlying cause of most of our problems is lack of maintenance and investment. Most of the bases on the west coast were put in with public financial support, and have received nothing other than ‘firefighting’ attention since while they deliver a steady income stream to the providers. The cabins are often in shocking condition, backup batteries where installed have often long since died through lack of maintenance or replacement, ditto the few standby generators they have, and in some cases significant water ingress. There’s also poor resilience in some of the networks — single routes for telemetry to base stations, so when one goes down it can blind them to the state of affairs at others nearby.

“The problems are most often power related or antenna damage — the latter is almost inexcusable. We are in a maximum UK wind exposure category area, and it is standard practice for towers and antennas to be designed and installed to withstand 120mph winds as a matter of course. Special purpose antennas and bracket systems are available up to 180mph survival. The installations should be pro-actively inspected and maintained, not attended to only when completely faulty.”

A spokeswoman for Vodafone would not comment on the details of the problems faced by residents of Wester Ross

She said: “The same problems apply across a wide stretch of the Highlands and Islands and this area has been affected too.  We have engineers working flat out to get issues resolved but this often requires them to climb individual masts. We cannot allow our engineers to work at height unless the weather conditions are right.  We are sorry customers have been inconvenienced by the loss of signal but we are doing everything we can to get the service up and running as it should.”

Gairloch councillor Richard Greene has written to the biggest mobile operators asking them to speed up the repairs.

“An important point to consider is that there are hardly any public phone boxes now, so these firms surely have a duty to keep a reasonable level of service in place,” he added.