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Grumbling about phones

June 2017

A chap from Facebook assured me the other day that there are now more smartphones (the ones with the screens) in the world than toothbrushes.   He may be right, but if they are so popular, why is it so difficult to get through to someone on them?  And if you do manage it, why is the connection so poor?

As the digital world coalesces, with phones that are also cameras and computers, Laptops that are phones and televisions, even televisions that use the internet, most of us have never been more connected with each other.  In theory, anyway; in my experience, it’s more and more difficult to make contact with anyone.

I think there are two reasons for this; first, the explosion in the ways we can make contact (mobile and fixed phone, email, text, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Viber and lots more) seems to have made it acceptable to ignore calls; second, the quality of the service, especially for voice calls, is so poor.

Most people under 40 will only give you a mobile number. Many of them don’t have a landline at home, or if they do, they don’t plug a phone into it and certainly don’t know the number.  I have three children between the ages of 27 and 32; all three are solvent, educated and civilised; none has an old-fashioned landline telephone. 

Calling them is hit and miss, usually the phone is not answered initially and it will take two or three efforts at calling each other back and forth, leaving messages and sending texts before we actually speak. They don’t seem to mind; it baffles me.

Our four main mobile phone networks are more appropriate for an emerging nation and none of them covers the whole country, whatever they say.

And I’ll tell you what’s even less satisfactory; when a visitor from overseas uses their phone around the UK, they get a better service than we do.  Really.

This is because of something called, rather romantically, “international roaming”.  The four UK networks allow foreign visitors’ phones to connect to whichever network happens to be strongest at the spot they are at the time.  Us poor saps, however, don’t have this facility as our mobile phones are yoked to just one network, and we are reduced to going the end of the garden waving our arms around just to find a signal from the supplier who has been gracious enough to accept our cash.

You can see their point.  They have no statutory obligation to provide us with a universal service; they get their money every month even if our phones are useless to us where we live or travel to; so where is the incentive for them to improve their network?

There is a solution: they should be forced to provide national roaming within the UK; in other words, allow our phones to hook into whichever of the four networks is strongest wherever we happen to be at the time, just as they already do it for overseas visitors. 

Also, consider this: if one network had to pay another a fee every time a phone bounced between them, wouldn’t it act as something of an spur for them all to beef up their own systems?

It seems, for once, that I am not quite alone in my grumbling. The head of Ofcom has recently written to the heads of the big networks telling them that their service is not meeting public expectations and asking them to do something about it. Fingers crossed.

Incidentally, it’s rather quaint that she wrote to them in the form of a letter but I suppose she thought it was the most reliable way of contacting them.  That tells its own story.