The Committee's evidence session was prompted after hearing complaints from people living in the Inner Hebrides that BT and Vodafone had taken a long time to re-establish services following severe winter storms.
The Committee heard that not only had some communities had been without a landline for over a month but that because BT had declared the loss of service as "matters beyond our reasonable control" (MBORC) then those affected were not be entitled to compensation.
Chair's comments on landlines
Alan Reid, the Member of the Committee who chaired the hearing and MP for Argyll and Bute said:
"We accept the storms this winter have been exceptional but for rural communities to be without such a basic amenity as a telephone line for over a month is unacceptable.
To make matters worse the communities affected will not be compensated because BT have declared the problem to be the result of matters beyond their reasonable control. The process for allowing telecoms providers to avoid paying compensation is opaque and in need of urgent revision."
BT deployed 340 extra engineers to the Highlands & Islands to deal with the impact of the winter's storms but this did not prevent a high number of appointments being missed, often with no notice given.
The problems are not limited to landlines, the Committee have been made aware that the re-establishment of mobile coverage in rural communities has been subject to delays and repeated failures. Indeed Vodafone's mobile coverage on Islay went down again on the day of the evidence session, the fourth time in less than a year – on each previous occasion Vodafone have taken over two weeks to rectify the problem.
The Committee heard that Vodafone, for whom 200 sites went down over the winter, are in the process of replacing 2G and 3G equipment with 4G kit that is more robust but that the roll out is dependent on broadband being available.
The Committee were surprised to learn that, due to property law, it can take telecoms companies between 2 and 10 days just to get access to damaged equipment.
Chair's comments on mobiles
Alan Reid MP said:
"The repeated failings of mobile phone coverage on Islay is beyond a joke. Vodafone are in the process of rolling out more robust 4G equipment across the UK but it is dependent on BT first providing a broadband connection. All those concerned in the roll out of a more resilient and effective network must work together to ensure that rural communities such as Islay are first in the queue and not left until those who already enjoy an adequate service are upgraded.
The Government should also look again at the legislation that governs the access of telecoms companies to their equipment – it is no one's interests that it can take companies up to ten days just to gain access to damaged equipment."
The Committee questioned BT on the rollout of broadband to rural Scotland. Concern had been raised with the Committee that residents of communities such as Dunoon were finding it impossible to establish when – if ever – superfast broadband would be available in their area and that public information campaigns were often incorrect or misleading.
While there was some good news for the residents of Dunoon, who we were told should receive an upgrade in service from June, others will have to wait longer.
Chair's comments on broadband
Alan Reid MP, who led this Committee session, said:
"It is simply not acceptable that people on Islay and elsewhere in rural Scotland are left without the ability to make phone calls or send e-mails. In an age where people are increasingly dependent on digital telecommunications for their livelihoods, and in places where people rely on this technology to stay in touch with friends and loved ones, it is unacceptable that services can be unavailable for days, or even weeks.
We call on the UK Government, Ofcom and the companies involved to work together and make it a priority to ensure people in rural Scotland are provided with a resilient and effective telecommunications network."