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Opening up the lines of communication

They were regarded by many 15 years ago as both a blot on the landscape and a danger to human health.

Mobile phone masts provoked fierce opposition in densely populated areas of Scotland in the 1990s and early 2000s over fears they might emit radiation that could be harmful to human health, particularly that of children.

Today, the masts are a little less controversial. The charity Cancer Research says that where mobile phones themselves are concerned, the evidence so far suggests they do not increase the risk of cancer, though because the research evidence is incomplete, the risk cannot be ruled out completely.

Masts and base stations, meanwhile, are "unlikely to increase cancer risk", according to the charity, which adds that the exposure from a base station is usually at least a hundred times below international guidelines and much less than the exposure a person would get from a phone.

Perhaps because of the ongoing lack of firm evidence of a link between ill-health and phone masts, and given that wind turbines have overtaken phone masts as the manmade structures protesters most love to hate, Scottish Government ministers sense that public attitudes towards phone masts may have changed and now plan to consult on relaxing planning rules relating to them.

This will no doubt reopen the debate, provoking some heartfelt objections, but it seems clear that more masts will be required if Scots are to have more reliable mobile phone coverage nationwide.

A recent Scottish Government-backed report on mobile coverage showed 27.5% of the country lacked basic 2G coverage, while even more of Scotland had no 3G signal, which allows smartphones to connect to the internet. Having no mobile coverage may be blissful for a holidaymaker, but it is a major headache to those trying to work or run a household; indeed, given the centrality of digital communications to most people's working lives, it can make it impossible to work effectively at all. Mobile "not spots", where there is no coverage, are not restricted to the countryside but are found in towns and cities too.

Consideration should be given to mitigating the visual impact of the mast compounds, up close. Often to be found on hilltops much frequented by walkers, they are typically surrounded by high metal fences. The antennae might be hard to beautify, but the base stations might be improved with extra wooden fencing or shrubbery.

All such matters should be up for discussion. The Scottish Government consultation is an opportunity for a serious debate and must be accompanied by a review of up-to-date research on the perceived health risks associated with the masts. For the debate to be meaningful, ministers must listen to public concerns and to the scientific data, but those with reservations about masts must do more than offer kneejerk opposition.

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