Scotland split 'threatens to raise mobile and post costs'

With 444 days to go before a referendum, the coalition steps up pressure against independence

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Indy Politics

Scotland would be left without a six-day postal service and poorer mobile phone and broadband coverage if it left the UK, new analysis by the coalition claims today as it steps up pressure against independence.

People living in a newly independent Scotland could be faced with roaming charges when they crossed the border into England, and even those with homes south of the border could incur charges if their phones connected with a mast on the other side, the report claims.

The Consumer Affairs minister, Jo Swinson, who has a Scottish constituency, will publish the latest in a series setting out the case for keeping the union together. Last night the report provoked anger from the Scottish government, who said it stoked unnecessary alarm.

There are still 444 days to go until a referendum, but the Westminster government is releasing the reports to claim people and businesses in Scotland would be worse off in all aspects of everyday life.

Under economies of scale, Scotland benefits from being part of a UK-wide single market, the report says, and splitting up the integrated communications infrastructure could burden Scottish businesses and consumers with poorer services and higher charges. Scotland would no longer be part of the Post Office network and would cease to benefit from the UK government's commitment to provide broadband and mobile coverage in rural areas. Services would be less reliable and attract higher charges.

The report says telecoms suppliers find it "commercially challenging to supply thinly spread populations, unless these are balanced with areas of higher population density". It adds: "So commercial investment and innovation in a standalone Scottish telecommunications network could be reduced from current levels."

However, even at present, broadband coverage in rural Scotland is not 100 per cent. Westminster is spending £530m over the next three years on a rural broadband programme. A "Yes" to independence vote in 2014 would see that funding cut off, Ms Swinson will say.

The report warns there could be international roaming charges for people from newly independent Scotland travelling into the rest of the UK. It says: "Callers on both sides of the border could inadvertently incur international roaming charges if their mobile phone connected to a mast on the other side of the border."

The report claims that the Royal Mail's six-day service, which goes beyond the minimum EU standard of five days, would end for Scotland. It says: "Creating a border could impact on the cost of sending a letter or package between Scotland and the continuing UK. It could also affect the level of service provision, including the time it takes to deliver between the two territories, potentially harming... domestic trade and provision of goods and services. The UK-wide postal network helps deliver a comprehensive provision of services – supporting more than 90 per cent of Scottish rural or small businesses that use or rely on the Royal Mail's provision of the universal postal service. Royal Mail employs some 11,500 people in Scotland. Independence could mean the guaranteed provision of the universal service stopping at the border."

Ms Swinson said: "The UK's integrated infrastructure connects people and communities, creates jobs and supports trade. The Government is committed to maintaining world-class postal and broadband services.... The rural broadband programme will deliver investment of £109m to Scottish communities that depend on getting connected. If Scotland left the UK, posting a letter or making a call could cost more, and there could be less choice for customers."

The Scottish government rejected the report, saying Westminster governments had already "substantially weakened" Scotland's communications infrastructure and that the Royal Mail had already insisted there would be no disruption to service under independence.

A spokesman said: "Since 2002, more than 400 Scottish post offices have closed and plans for privatisation of Royal Mail threaten jobs and the operation of the universal service obligation, while people across rural Scotland regularly struggle with the lack of mobile coverage.

"Independence will provide an opportunity to properly support the postal network with access to our fair share of UK assets, and... the Scottish government has an excellent record of supporting rural post offices. Both the Royal Mail and the Federation of Post Masters are clear that... independence could offer real opportunities for the network.

"Similarly, the UK's claims fail to recognise key changes in the telecoms market. Currently, the fragmentation of mobile and broadband initiatives, and the reserved nature of telecoms policy and regulation, prevents us from realising the economic benefits that could be achieved through improving digital connectivity."

The spokesman added that "the EU is looking to remove roaming charges completely and they are widely expected to be abolished well before 2016. Independence could ensure that the regulatory and policy regimes are better aligned to achieve this."