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The future's mobile

April 2016

The future is mobile, we are told.  Well, maybe.  It’s certainly true that the use of “smart” mobile phones is increasing rapidly.  A tipping point was reached late last year when the number of people using them for everyday tasks overtook those using desktop machines; tasks such as paying bills, booking restaurants, sending messages and much more.

In fact, it’s only actually speaking to other people on a mobile phone that seems to be in decline.  The other day as I watched a ten-minute review of a new phone; not once did the chap mention making phone calls.  It seems to me that the main use for the speech facility of mobiles nowadays is to provide inaudible interviews with politicians on the Today programme, but I won’t dwell on that.

The general popularity of mobile phones is undeniable.  Partly it is because of their increased ability to do things but mainly it’s because of their claim that you can connect to the network wherever you are.  If only that were true.

Mobiles link to the outside world in two ways; first, through the network of phone masts dotted about the country.  These are run by whoever you pay for your phone, perhaps Vodafone, O2 or BT, and can deliver both voice and internet services.  What you pay is mostly related to how much you use it.  The internet service is called 3G or 4G (G is for “Generation”).  How well either works will depend on how close you are to one of the towers; in my household they barely work at all, unless you stand on a chair at the end of the garden.

Phones can also connect to the internet through Wi-Fi, exactly as your laptop probably does.  The beauty of this is that it is free, or at least any charges accrue to the owner of the Wi-Fi, not the owner of the phone.  This is popular in shops, restaurants and other public spots, but you often have to fiddle with your phone to make sure it is connected and occasionally ask for a password.

If you are on the move, or in a less urban area, it’s likely that the 3G signal will be most use to you, but its availability is very mixed indeed.  I have just returned from a brief visit to Sardinia (in search of a little winter warmth); comparing the service there and here is makes us look pretty feeble.  At home (rural, but hardly remote) I have a very weak voice connection and intermittent 3G at best; on a deserted hillside in the small island of Sardinia I had a high speed 3G internet connection good enough to watch television online.  In our hotel, the Wi-Fi was four times the speed of my domestic BT supply.

I have always enjoyed visiting Italy because of their focus on the overall quality of life rather than the details; in return, one never really expects anything technical to work reliably; it’s part of the charm. 

However, it seems that Italians have decided, way ahead of us, that a good mobile internet service only adds to the quality of life, and got on with it.  I think they are right, and I applaud them.  Quite why we have allowed them, with their troubled economy and erratic governments, to steal a march on us like this is beyond me.