Highland Phone Masts - A Preventable Disaster for Wild Land

© David Craig

From Torridon, to Glen Nevis, to the Cairngorms, planning authorities are facing a flood of applications to build new 4G masts in Scotland's wildest and most scenic places. Hundreds of phone masts are planned, each needing vehicle access tracks and diesel generators. Most are located in uninhabited glens, serving no apparent local need. Costing taxpayers half a billion pounds, the Shared Rural Network rollout is state-sponsored environmental vandalism on a huge scale, says David Craig. What's the 'thinking' behind it? And can it be stopped?

Why walk or climb in the Highlands? There are big distances, and the weather is not the best. But accepting the challenge allows you to experience hillwalking and mountaineering in the raw, right here in the UK. The wildness and remoteness make it a pioneering experience inducing a spiritual, elemental connection with the mountains - rare in a world that's largely tamed. You don't need to climb or scramble to 'get' that aspect; wild camping or bothying is even better, the enforced digital detox being an added attraction for overstressed city dwellers.

In Fisherfield and the Fannaichs alone, 16 new masts are proposed - how many of them are wanted by walkers and climbers?  © Dan Bailey
In Fisherfield and the Fannaichs alone, 16 new masts are proposed - how many of them are wanted by walkers and climbers?
© Dan Bailey

Never in the history of phone masts have so many served so few - at such cost

But digital detox, and the wild land experience itself, may soon become much harder to find. Cut to a 2019 'levelling-up' election pledge, the Shared Rural Network. The SRN aims to improve 4G coverage in rural areas across the UK - particularly Scotland, which to Ofcom appears singularly disadvantaged:

Although at first widely welcomed, the SRN seems to have lost its way. Time to check a map!

This is Fisherfield, and shows in red the 'total not spot' (TNS) areas targeted by the SRN. The green areas are designated as 'Wild Land' by NatureScot: semi-natural landscapes with minimal signs of human influence. Here there are no inhabitants, no buildings, no roads, and few visitors.

Torridon and Fisherfield map  © David Craig
Torridon and Fisherfield map
© David Craig

The map shows the reason Scotland has more notspots than England is because it has these wild uninhabited areas. This is what draws us to the Highlands: it is a feature to be celebrated, not a disability in need of correction.

You might mistake the triangles for Munros, but they are in fact nominal sites for the 274 new publicly-funded phone masts which the SRN plans to build in the Scottish Highlands.

Masts are positioned to eliminate notspot areas, with no regard for people, premises or roads. As a result, the entire SRN budget has been devoted to masts in uninhabited wild land. Not only that: notspots and masts are concentrated in the most remote and untouched parts of wild land: the best bits. Each mast requires a diesel generator and ATV access for refuelling and maintenance. Zoom out, and your distress may change to alarm or anger when you see that the SRN is not damaging some areas of protected wildness, but systematically attacking them all.

Is then no nook of English ground secure

From rash assault?


Red: SRN masts Green: Wild Land Blue: 4GInfill masts  © David Craig
Red: SRN masts Green: Wild Land Blue: 4GInfill masts

This state-sponsored environmental vandalism is massively funded. Each mast costs £1M, and the total bill for UK taxpayers will be £500M. Never in the history of phone masts have so many served so few - at such cost. Thankfully, there is still time to stop this madness, but only if we hillwalkers and mountaineers act now, and act vigorously. £500M buys a lot of clout and we'll have to shout loudly to be heard above the industry that stands to get its hands on that money.

Who is my neighbour?

Why do anarchic mountaineers and walkers who just want a bit of peace need to get involved? We like to do our own thing and mind our own business, unfettered by bureaucracy. Unfortunately, we are an involuntary part of the problem and need to get involved, however reluctantly. Why so?

One reason this programme is going wrong is because it was designed as a desktop exercise without consultation with local communities. The Scottish 4G Infill programme had similar aims, but following community consultations its masts (shown in blue) are in sensible places. But in uninhabited land, who do you consult?

Another stumbling block for SRN was the business case which civil servants had to develop to justify the whims of their ephemeral political masters. In uninhabited land, who are the beneficiaries?

One reason this programme is going wrong is because it was a desktop exercise without consultation with local communities

SRN overcame these issues by avoiding them. Benefits were calculated by bundling the publicly-funded TNS element with a parallel, industry-funded programme to improve 'partial not spots'. 4G coverage of wild land was just deemed to be a necessary requirement of modern living, and the planned mast sites were kept secret. Recently these sites have become known, and the obvious questions are being asked. The SRN has been scrambling to invent a post-facto justification of the TNS masts which relies not on inhabitants but on 'visitors'. In these areas 'visitors' are almost all walkers, climbers mountaineers.

So there you have it: we, who strive to leave no mark, are being used to justify massive and permanent scars on our landscape. Our landscape, not the Government's.

Not in my name

Our response should not be just to protest but to seek to educate and inform. How can the SRN or the government know what climbers and walkers think and want, or how many we are, if we don't speak up?

We need to explain that the ethos of going to the hills is not to make them safe for us, but to make ourselves safe in the mountains. We need to explain why we accept risks and hardships, why we don't want the state to bolt every rock climb or build a waymarked footpath to every Munro summit, less still a network of wild land phone masts.

Camp west of Loch Mullardoch, just one very wild place of many now threatened by SRN  © David Craig
Camp west of Loch Mullardoch, just one very wild place of many now threatened by SRN
© David Craig

Emergency coverage is certainly important, particularly for anyone who works in these areas. But this requirement should be addressed seriously, not seen as a fortuitous by-product of leisure-focussed 4G surfing. Emergency equipment needs to be 100% reliable. The SRN 4G offering is nothing like this. 4G coverage will be increased by SRN, but not to 100%. Highland terrain means it could never be 100%, however many masts are built. For reliable emergency cover, 4G phones also suffer from short battery life. To get help, you need to be well enough to speak, and be able to specify your location.

A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is a much better answer. They could (should) be mandatory for anyone working in remote areas like Wild Land. They are cheaper to buy than mobile phones, with no monthly subscription, have a six-year battery life and work 100% everywhere - land and sea. If you are in trouble, you retrieve it from the bottom of your sack, break the seal and push the button. You don't need to know where you are, it does that for you, accurately and reliably. If visitor safety is really a priority, Government assistance could be provided to help local businesses to acquire them; or local rental sites could be provided to service occasional users and visitors.

Another upmarket alternative is a satellite phone, or indeed the latest crop of 5G/satellite hybrid phones. They are currently more expensive, but their costs will come down as they always do. And they're still vastly cheaper than a network of landscape-damaging masts. This technology represents a near future in which terrestrial 4G will simply be simply redundant. If the current business justification for SRN's 4G rollout appears shaky, the long term technological case must be doubly so.

What can you do?

  • Speak about it; get it up-front on the BMC and Mountaineering Scotland websites
  • Write to your MP, whose job it is to make sure the UK government does what voters want; copy in your MSP if you live in Scotland. Hilary may have climbed Everest 'because it was there', but 274 masts and a half-billion investment requires a more robust justification. It is not the Highlands which are in need of digital levelling-up, but fragile Highland communities and their businesses, premises, and roads - the places people live and work, in short, not the uninhabited land.
  • Consider joining the Shared Rural Network Mast Action Group on Facebook, a place to exchange info and ideas. 
  • Keep an eye on the Parkswatchscotland blog, a good source on this issue among others.
  • Check out the John Muir Trust website for more info.

Planning objections

Perhaps the most effective thing you can do is to object to each planning application as it appears. It's clear there will be a lot of them, but each need only take a few minutes of your time. How much do you value Scotland's wild land? 

Explain that you visit these areas and that you don't need or want these masts. The SRN itself recognises that the planning process, including objections, is perhaps their only way of evaluating public good v environmental damage. SRN managers in Digital Mobile Spectrum Ltd. are tasked with fulfilling the SRN contract (whatever they may think privately). But the small print in their contract recognises planning refusal as a 'force majeure'; so let's help ensure the many current and upcoming planning applications are indeed refused.

But how will we use the rockfax app without a signal 😉

2 Apr

As always, if you want to talk about "state sponsored environmental vandalism" you should focus on upland "management" rather than phone masts.

Of course if you can excuse the ecological dessert that the highlands have become, but are offended by a metal pole, carry on.

To add for clarity: I'd rather we had functional, natural ecosystems and no phone masts. To me the former is much more critical, and I find it strange that is so often overlooked in this argument.

It's not an either-or is it Ian? We cover environmental questions a lot, and that very much includes land management. Here are some opinion pieces, just for starters (a lot more coverage is in news etc)

Lynx reintroduction: https://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/opinions/is_a_lynx_reintroduction_likely_and_how_might_it_work-15062

Wild land under threat: https://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/opinions/scotlands_wild_land_is_under_threat-14364

Grouse moors: https://www.ukhillwalking.com/articles/opinions/its_time_to_end_burning_on_grouse_moors-13479

I'm not sure if you've used the app before, but you don't need signal in order for it to work. Yes, you have to download the areas in advance, but not doing so would be akin to forgetting your printed guidebook in years gone by, and if you do forget then there's always wifi (and there isn't always a shop to buy a new guide in).

2 Apr

A convenient (for the governments) side effect is that these kinds of schemes transfer large quantities of wealth from the state (i.e. us) to private corporations whilst allowing them to claim they are doing good. Not that I would accuse either government of having an agenda other than the wellbeing of the population ...

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