Opposition politicians and business groups have called on both the UK and Scottish governments to bring high-speed mobile data links to rural parts of the country after a report published last week found that Scotland has the worst third generation (3G) coverage in the UK.

The report from the telecoms watchdog Ofcom found that a quarter of Scotland’s landmass has no mobile coverage and that, at 97.1 per cent, Scotland has the lowest proportion of premises in the vicinity of which a 3G signal can be received. This compares with 99.6 per cent in England and a UK-wide average of 99.3 per cent.

Despite the findings, the report also found that Scotland is turning into a “smartphone society” with the device now the most popular way to get online.

The mismatch between the massive rise in smartphone and tablet use in recent years and the fact that large parts of Scotland don’t have a mobile signal for voice and text messages (2G) yet alone a 3G data signal means that action is now urgently needed, critics say.

Garry Clark of the economic development unit of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce told the Sunday Herald that poor mobile phone and data links are already damaging growth in rural parts of Scotland.

“Mobile data links are either non existent or very poor across large parts of the country,” Clark said. “Visitors to Scotland who were surveyed recently by VisitScotland reported high levels of dissatisfaction with mobile telecommunications.”

“Tourists nowadays expect to be able to find restaurants, accommodation and attractions by using smartphones. Potential customers need to be able to connect with businesses and businesses need to be able to contact customers.”

Clark points to Nordic countries such as Finland, which, despite its low population density on a par with Scotland, enjoys universal high speed mobile communications coverage.

Tory MSP for the Highlands and Islands Jamie McGrigor said that tourism operators in most parts of rural Scotland are being “very severely handicapped” by the lack of essential telecommunications infrastructure.

“The Scottish Government’s aim is that people should be able to work and start up businesses in all parts of the country, but that is not possible with the telecoms infrastructure in place. Large areas of the country are being left behind and will become more deprived unless action is taken,” he said.

“If you look at some of the newer members of the European Union such as Slovenia and Estonia they have almost 100 per cent coverage while Scotland is being put at a significant disadvantage with its much poorer coverage.”

Although the Scottish Government has provided funding to increase broadband fixed links to rural part of Scotland, there is no scheme to encourage mobile telecoms operators to improve coverage. And a UK government scheme announced in 2011 to improve coverage at 500 sites by May this year has so far only seen around 30 masts being built.

Shetland MSP Tavish Scott said that poor mobile telecoms links are impacting Shetland’s important aquaculture industry. In countries such as Norway advanced communications systems are increasingly being used to control many of the processes in salmon farms, but this requires high quality mobile links.

“Unfortunately the Scottish Government has not made communications a priority and Ofcom has been less than useless in driving the building of masts around the country,” he said.

“The government needs to come to a hard-nosed agreement to provide coverage to those parts of Scotland which do not have a signal.”

Andy Willox, the Federation of Small Businesses’ Scottish policy convenor said: “Patching Scotland’s coverage gap needs to be a priority for the country’s decision makers.

“Mobile data is now essential for more and more businesses and customers, but too many communities in Scotland are still 2G towns.”

John Cooke, director of the Mobile Operators Association which represents the four large mobile phone companies, told the Sunday Herald that the low population densities of many parts of Scotland allied with its topography made provision a challenge. As a result, universal coverage is unlikely to be achieved without the injection of some public money, he said.

“Nearly half the masts across the UK as a whole run at a loss, and they tend to be those in rural areas,” he said. “Not only does low population density mean less revenue per mast, but masts tend to be more expensive to build in rural areas, particularly in upland areas.”

“The four mobile network operators – EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone – spend around 50% more per capita on their infrastructure in Scotland than they do south of the border. And they are investing £5 billion over the next three years to deliver coverage improvements across the UK as a whole for 2G, 3G and 4G. We anticipate 4G coverage in Scotland reaching 98% of premises during 2017.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Many of the coverage issues we experience in Scotland, particularly 3G, stem from the UK Government’s flawed approach to auctioning spectrum, which allowed operators to focus solely on urban areas at the expense of rural communities.

“The Scottish Government is committed to developing a plan to tackle this issue and the Deputy First Minister hosted a productive round-table discussion with mobile operators last week with a view to developing a joint plan to maximise and improve mobile coverage in every part of Scotland.”