Find out how we've worked together with the Scottish Futures Trust to bring reliable mobile signal to one of the country's most remote areas, the Isle of Coll.

coll landscape

The Isle of Coll, an island off the west coast of Scotland, is home to just 200 people. It’s small and rural enough that bringing reliable signal to the island has been nearly impossible in the past due to a lack of surrounding network infrastructure.

But now all that’s changed thanks to a brand new mobile mast that’s connecting the locals to the mainland – and the rest of the world – like never before. But this is no ordinary feat of engineering: the mast is a unique joint project between Vodafone and the Scottish government, and it’s a partnership that’s allowed us to go where no mobile reception has gone before…

A joint venture

Coll had a problem: its isolated location and small population meant that for the big networks in the UK, building a mast has proved uneconomical or too difficult to build due to the location. But in 2015, people need to be sure they can contact each other no matter what, and we’re always keen to do whatever we can to make sure that’s the case. And that’s where the Scottish government comes in.

To find out more, we’ve been speaking to Vodafone’s Networks Manager, John McCracken:

“We were approached by the Scottish government,” John explains, “who were looking for a mobile operator to take part in the project. And we agreed that we would partially fund the joint venture.”

Coll Mast mainAnd this is where things differ from our usual way of working. Normally when it comes to new masts, we’ll front the cost. It’s important that we can bring our best possible signal to the biggest possible area, but things get tricky when it comes to servicing places as small as the Isle of Coll.

It’s always a difficult decision to make, but with masts costing hundreds of thousands of pounds to build and upkeep, it’s not always possible:

“In a lot of ways it’s not economically viable for us to build our own mast in this kind of area,” John says, “so from that perspective it requires other parties to come to the table. The Scottish Government were keen to address the Isle of Coll and to provide something for the islanders, so they paid for the mast – the structure and power supply – and we provided the electronic equipment and communication links back into the network.”

It was a match made in heaven. Why? Because we’ve got plenty of experience in beaming signal around the most remote parts of the Scottish landscape:

“We’ve got an extensive microwave network in Scotland, and we were able to use that to provide the connectivity on the Isle of Coll back into the main Vodafone network.”

Ready for a quick science lesson?

Unlike the fibre that connects most of our network masts, the ones we use in places like the Scottish Highlands beam signal from one to another along huge stretches of land using microwave communication links – a bit like bouncing a laser beam from one mirror to the next. And that’s how Coll links back to the mainland, and back to the network. You can read more about that technology here.

“We started off in earnest around about January last year,” John adds, “so it’s taken us a year to get to where we are now, but like all infrastructure building mobile networks takes longer in the UK than is should often due to out of date planning and property laws and the lack of a BT fibre network in rural areas which we need to use to connect the mast to the rest of our network. One issue we didn’t face was a problem finding a site to build the mast or agreeing a reasonable rent with the landlord. This is a major problem up and down the country but not on Coll where the local community have been brilliant by working with us to find a solution.”

With the hard work done, the Isle of Coll now has reliable 2G, 3G and 4G signal, the benefit of which is being felt island-wide. And beyond…

Feeling the benefit

“There’s a youth project on the island called Project Trust,” says John, “and what they do is send students overseas to experience working in third world countries. So they’ve really benefitted from the newfound signal. There are also other small businesses on the island, all of which are now contactable by mobile too. And there’s also now better coverage out to another island called Tiree to the southwest, as the mast is that far reaching.”

Going from no signal to full on 4G is making a big difference to those on Coll and Tiree alike by giving residents access to tech they’ve never had before, but that the rest of the UK have come to expect. And that can be life changing.

coll golf club

Derek Graham, who runs the Demonstrating Digital Programme within the Scottish Futures Trust, and who was instrumental in helping us get the mast built, explains:

“Having a signal is allowing people to keep in touch when they’re out on the island making it easier for them to go about their daily business. The local GP on Coll has benefitted immensely, too,” he says. “Up until the mast was put in place she had to forward her surgery phone to any one of the houses that she’s visiting, just to make sure that if there’s an emergency anywhere on the island she could be contacted.

“The volunteers on the island from the Scottish fire and rescue are reliant on being able to communicate across the island, too, and also with the mainland. So just having a mobile phone can make a life or death difference.”

“It’s all about being able to be contacted,” he tells us in closing, “which we all take for granted on the mainland.”

Connecting the highlands… With the mast up and running, both Coll and Tiree are feeling the full force of mobile connectivity and what it can do. But what happens in the Scottish Highlands when bad weather hits? Click here to find out.