Over the last twenty years or so, mobile phones have become a way of life in the UK. Even small children have them, and the elderly can get ones with big buttons, and simple menus. It is no longer considered a luxury, to have Internet access, unlimited text capability, and many hours of call time, on monthly contracts. Twitter, Facebook, E-mail, and all those things that have become part of everyday life, are taken for granted as being accessible from the phone in your pocket. Phone boxes are few and far between, and many youngsters will have never used one, or in some cases, even seen one. If you are lucky enough to actually find one, it is unlikely to take money anyway, so you will need a phone card, or some form of plastic payment, just to make a call.
In large cities, it seems as if everyone has a mobile phone constantly to hand, either talking into it, or looking at social media on it, perhaps even using it as a live map, to find their way around. Whatever we think of the concept, fan or sceptic, it is not going to go away. When I was a schoolboy, being able to talk to someone, and seeing their face at the same time, on a hand-held device, was the province of Science Fiction stories. I never believed it would be possible in my lifetime, but here it is.
Well, not here actually. Not in rural Norfolk, and no doubt many other areas badly served by the network providers. Outside of the larger towns, and even in the centre of some of them, the phone in your pocket is just that; in your pocket. The signal strengths are so bad, it is hardly worth getting it out. Half a century ago, this would not have been a problem. Today, it it not only annoying, it is potentially dangerous too. Break down in the car, ten miles from the nearest town or village, and what are you going to do? Call the RAC? Good luck with that. If you even get a signal in the first place, chances are the call will drop out at some stage. Late for a meeting, job interview, or collecting someone at the station? Forget all that, as you will never be able to inform anyone what is going on.
And what about the wonders of the mobile Internet, and the world a tap away on your mobile? Not a chance. All you will see is the whirring of the refresh icon, or messages saying ‘no network coverage’. You switch it off, it just isn’t worth the trouble. Try to keep all the battery power for that urgent call or text. The call you can’t make, because you have no signal, or the text that arrives the following day, the message it contained now redundant.
The prices are the same though. Weeks of ’emergency calls only’ does not result in an apologetic refund from your service provider. They act as if it is your fault, for choosing to live somewhere so remote from their systems. Their technical advisors will suggest that you keep scrolling through your menu, trying to find different ways of sending texts, or being able to make calls. Perhaps they should just do their job, by honouring the contracts that they are so keen to sell you, biting the bullet, and actually paying to supply signal masts to areas that do have small population densities.
Their failure to do this means that anyone can be stranded here. Women alone on a dark night, young people unable to call parents for lifts, or parents who cannot contact their children. It is not just about Facebook and fashion, it is about safety and security, in a modern world of no phone boxes, set in a rural life with little or no public transport, and fast roads without pavements or street lighting. When you move to the countryside, you learn very quickly, that you are marginalised, forgotten, and disregarded, by all the companies that serve the big cities so well.
So, the next time you see an expensive and glossy TV advert for the latest phone, extolling all its technical wizardry, spare a thought for the millions on the periphery of society, carrying things that are little better than plastic ornaments.