The Search For A Phone Signal Is Almost Over

by Alastair Hamilton -

Viewers who recall the first series of BBC1’s Shetland crime drama will recall a running theme, namely the difficulty that Detective Inspector Perez and his colleagues had in obtaining a signal on their mobile phones.

It’s true, of course, that mobile reception in Shetland has historically been a little patchy, as indeed it can be in any rural area or, indeed, in some parts of cities. Some years ago, I was surprised to find no signal in one corner of Piccadilly Circus.

However, all four main networks have long had a presence in Shetland. Vodafone and O2 (the latter originally Cellnet) were first to establish 2G networks. Coverage improved from 1996, when the two firms began working together, with support from Highlands and Islands Enterprise, to erect 200 new masts in the north west of Scotland and the islands.

Orange and Three soon joined them, albeit with a much more limited presence, with Three being the first to offer 3G coverage. Three was also the network behind that viral advertising campaign featuring a Shetland pony moonwalking to Fleetwood Mac on the cliffs of Eshaness.

However, 3G coverage on other networks lagged or was absent altogether, due in part to the requirement, when 3G licences were originally auctioned, that only 90% of the population need be covered. The same was true over much of the Highlands and Islands.

However, things have recently moved on apace. 2017 has seen the introduction of 4G mobile services in Shetland, so far by Vodafone, O2 and EE. One result is that, rather than photographs of their latest meal, some of my friends have taken to posting shots of their latest catch of mackerel, lobster or trout from boats or loch-sides in some of the remotest corners of Shetland.

things have recently moved on apace

One reason for all this activity is that the 4G licences require 98% of the population to be covered. However, the expansion of services is also underpinned by the need to establish a new national network for the emergency services. EE won the contract to provide it. With 4G, fire crews will be able to receive an architectural drawing showing the layout of a building, or ambulance paramedics could send images to hospital, showing a patient’s condition. Obviously, the service needs to be available pretty much everywhere, so at least 20 new masts will be needed in Shetland and work on these is under way.

at least 20 new masts will be needed in Shetland

The easiest way to check coverage is to use the Ofcom website, which offers maps relating to all four operators. If you enter a postcode (for example, ZE1 0LL for central Lerwick), you can compare the services; zooming out allows you to see the whole of Shetland.

It seems that the days of Perez, Tosh or Sandy having to sprint up the nearest hill in order to contact base are almost over; and that means a much better service for the rest of us.

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