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Extreme weather forces 'triage' of Scottish rural mobile outages

Wednesday, February 11th 2015 by Dean Reilly

A team responsible for essential repairs and maintenance on Vodafone's rural Scottish mobile network has revealed the scale of the problems it faced during the January storms.

Writing on the official Vodafone blog, Dan Raine, Vodafone UK head of networks in the north, said: “If the power is out to a significant number of sites because of the weather then we target the key hub sites with generators to restore them as soon as possible.”

“Then we have to triage any remaining network issues once the power is restored by the energy companies. We can normally respond immediately,” he says. “We can go and fix sites that day, but in (a recent) case the sheer scale of the problem – the power and the snow – made things trickier.”

Although this combination of problems is rare, strong winds can pose greater problems for engineering teams than snow, he explained.

“When we had outages recently in Knapdale and Argyll, we recorded wind speeds of more than 100mph. Winds at that speed can misalign even the most secure microwave dishes, and if you lose the line of sight from one to the other then you’ve lost that link. And that’s when we need an engineer to go out and physically realign them.”

Explaining that fibre connections often used in urban areas wouldn’t be suitable for covering long distances, Mr Raine added: “Due to the remote locations in Scotland, we need to microwave the signal over long distances via a series of masts.”

Responsibility for maintaining these masts falls to engineers like Iain Macleod, who knows first hand how the conditions can make quick repairs difficult.

'Scale of the problem'

He said: “There were sites where we had to abandon the car and walk for miles. At some sites we had to leave the car at the foot of a hill and walk two miles up the hill in deep snow, with all our equipment in hand.

“There are all sorts of challenges. As you can probably imagine it’s pretty cold up there; you need to look out for falling icicles, windy conditions, slippery surfaces and things like that.”

Mr Macleod said that teamwork and looking after one another in often hazardous conditions is important to engineers in such locations.

However, Mr Raine is confident the network will become more resilient as a result of a £900m investment originally announced in 2013. “We’re looking at making our transmission sites more resilient in the short term,” he said.

“All of the radio sites are already planned to be upgraded as part of our current network investment activity, too.”

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