Community Broadband Scotland discussions on the Isle of Coll
Not all Scottish Government community engagements end with drinks in a bar with a former Scottish Rugby captain! We had been on the isle of Coll in the Inner Hebrides to discuss the Scottish Government’s Community Broadband Scotland programme and more specifically to discuss a potential technology pilot on the island.
Coll is a small but vibrant island with a population of around 220, including about 70 children of varying ages, many of whom attend school on the mainland. We went to Coll to investigate trialling a new 2G/3G base station that would provide good mobile coverage on the island for the first time. Coll has a small BT exchange, an Airwave (TETRA) mast for the emergency services but no mobile masts on the island. Mobile coverage on the island is patchy at best coming from masts on other islands and cannot be relied upon. Many islanders who worked outdoors expressed concerns about their safety without mobile coverage, and the islands only doctor has to redirect her fixed phone to the closest fixed phone on the island. More than once she has had to leave a patient to get to the nearest fixed phone to call for assistance, a difficult medical dilemma.
The Scottish Government is proposing to install a small lightweight, low power base station on the island to provide good 2G coverage and 3G coverage around Arinagour, the only village. Currently we are waiting for one of the UK mobile operators to confirm that they will be participating in the pilot for it to go ahead. Part of the pilot will be to see how the base station performs, and whether it can withstand the weather conditions.
Response to the proposal was good, and we expect no problems recruiting ~20 volunteers for the 6 month pilot. One of the benefits the mast will bring is that anyone on the island with a mobile phone would be able to call 999 regardless of what network their phone is on, and for people on the mobile operator partner’s network calls to people on the island to other people on the island will be free.
We hope that if this technology proves to be as cheap and effective as we expect that it may become a standard solution for other remote communities in Scotland.
Finally we were given a taste of how difficult island life can be when high winds and bad visibility cancelled our flights off the island. This brought home to us how remote the islands can be, and how important mobile coverage and broadband are for island communities to literally stay connected to the wider World.