As Britain enters the traditional school summer holiday season, hundreds of thousands of people will travel to the coast, to our national parks, to beautiful areas of the countryside. After the inevitable traffic chaos will come the cries from teenagers who can’t get on the Internet. And from one or two adults too.
This summer, my holidays will be in Swanage, where I can get a decent 3G signal (probably 4G too – I haven’t been down for a while) but, outside our towns and cities, the likelihood of getting a mobile broadband connection (if indeed any broadband connection) is pretty slim. I’m not going to get started on the rural broadband/fibre to the home or cabinet discussion but mobile broadband is supposed to fill the gaps. Unfortunately that’s a long way from reality.
Rural idyll and technological isolation
Last half-term, my family stayed in the South Hams, in Devon. It’s a beautiful part of the country where even A roads are barely wide enough for buses and small trucks to traverse and the pace of life is delightfully laid back. Our holiday home didn’t have broadband, but we had three smartphones with us – one on Giffgaff (O2), one on Vodafone, one on EE. None could pick up any more than a GPRS signal.
In the past, it’s been good for me to disconnect from the ‘net on holiday, to switch off from social media, to escape from email. This time though, I noticed a change in the way that tourist attractions are marketed. The leaflets and pamphlets no longer provide all the information you need to book a trip and access to a website is assumed. After all, this is 2015 not 1975. Whilst planning a circular tour from Dartmouth by boat to Totnes, bus to Paignton and steam train back to Kingswear (a short ferry ride from our origin at Dartmouth) I was directed to use the website to check which services to use (as the river is tidal and the times can vary accordingly) but I couldn’t use the ‘net – I had no connection.
To find the information I needed, I used another function on my phone – making a telephone call – whilst for other online requirements I drove to Dartmouth or Kingsbridge. I even picked up a 4G connection in Kingsbridge, downloading my podcasts in seconds – what a contrast just 8 miles (and a 45 minute round trip!) makes.
A new communications role for the village pub
Public houses have always been an important link in rural connectivity (physically, geographically, socially) and Wi-Fi is now providing a technological angle to the pub’s role in the community. From my perspective, a pint whilst perusing the ‘net is not a bad thing. Both the village pubs in Slapton had Wi-Fi (I’ll admit standing outside one of them before opening hours to get on the Internet one day!) and whilst visiting Hope Cove I was borrowed pub Wi-Fi to tweet to Joe Baguley, who I knew visits often (by chance, he was there too!).
Indeed, it was a tweet from Joe, spotted when I got home, that inspired me to write this post:
I take my kids on history trips. We go to Devon where the broadband is 100x slower than it is at home in Marlow…
— Joe Baguley (@JoeBaguley) June 11, 2015
No better in the Home Counties
It’s not just on holiday though… I live in a small market town close to where Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire (OK, Milton Keynes) meet. Despite living on a hill, and my house being of 1990s construction (so no thick walls here), EE won’t even let me reliably make a phone call. This is from the network which markets itself as the
“the UK’s biggest, fastest and most reliable mobile network today”
3G is available in parts of town if some microwaves stretch to us from a neighbouring cell but consider that we’re only 58 miles from London. This is not the back of beyond…
Then think about travelling by train. On my commute from Bedford or Milton Keynes to London there is no Wi-Fi, patchy 3G, and it’s impossible to work. The longer-distance journeys I used to make to Manchester were better as I could use the on-train Wi-Fi, but that comes at a cost.
Broadband is part of our national infrastructure, just like telephone networks, roads and railways. Fibre is slowly reaching out and increasing access speeds in people’s homes but mobile broadband is increasingly important in our daily lives. Understandably, the private enterprises that operate the mobile networks focus on the major towns and cities (where most people live). But they also need to think about the devices we use – the mobile devices – and consider how to address requirements outside those cities, in the places where the people go.