Wednesday 29 July 2009

25 years of dodgy coverage

In my last article for I looked forward to a world of cyborgs… but feared that decent battery life could stifle my dreams. And this week I’m on a similar theme, despairing that the UK’s mobile coverage problems probably won’t be solved before the Silver Jubilee of Vodafone and Cellnet’s networks.

To illustrate my worries, let me tell you a story. Once upon a time I worked for BT. “British Telecom” they called themselves then, before the shame of being a British telecommunications company caused them to change their name. And, as all British Telecom employees did, I signed the Official Secrets Act.

Fortunately, the information I’m about to disclose wasn’t passed to me in the course of my work – otherwise this could be the last opinion piece I wrote for a while.

When I started work at BT, they were – in simple terms – the UK’s telephone company. In reality that wasn’t true, because Kingston-upon-Hull had its own telecoms structure, Mercury Communications had recently been formed and System 4 carphones were available, but let’s overlook all that for the moment.

One of BT’s responsibilities, so I was told – this is the bit I was told outside work, your honour – was to make sure every town and village had telephone service. If a remote community or village didn’t have a property with telephone service, BT (or its predecessor, Post Office Telecommunications) would make sure there was a telephone box available. This may have been fiction or exaggeration, but it seemed perfectly plausible to me. Therefore, in case of emergency, there was a pretty darned good chance someone would be able to phone for help.
Red BT K6 telephone box
Fast-forward to 2009 and BT no longer has a monopoly on providing telephone service. The red telephone box is disappearing, with a number of local councils choosing to ‘sponsor’ an unprofitable local box for £500 a year – around half of the actual running costs – to prevent BT from removing them.

Yet there’s no true mobile replacement. Almost 25 years after the first cellular mobile phone call in the UK and I could still be stuck in a large number of UK locations without service from any of the country’s five networks. Worse still, rival networks won’t lift a finger to help. If I’m a Vodafone customer without coverage and there’s O2 service available, the networks will shrug apologetically. Even my handset joins in – taunting me with an on-screen “emergency calls only” message but not letting me make any.

Okay, so it’s all being fixed. To quote Ofcom’s consultation document from earlier this month: “We believe that now is the right time to look more closely at the nature of, and reasons for, the persistent 2G ‘not-spot’ problem as well as the state of mobile broadband coverage and work where appropriate to facilitate better coverage”. And emergency roaming could be in place by the end of the year if trials work out okay. But it’s still taken a quarter of a century.

This article was originally published on

Thursday 23 July 2009

Tweet The Kotel

Last year I did some work that involved a little research about The Western Wall (also known as the Wailing Wall, the Kotel and the al-Buraaq wall). Now, leaving religious issues aside - which is nigh-on impossible to do, given the wall's location - I ended up with a basic grasp of 2000 years of wall history and a desire to pay the wall a visit. But now I don't need to... or at least, I wouldn't need to if I wanted to leave a prayer in a gap in the wall. lets you send prayers via Twitter or email. It's not 'official' but is operated anonymously by a man from Tel-Aviv with help from people in Jerusalem. He prints the Tweets or emails and they 'post' them between the stones.

Why are they doing it? To quote the website, "It seemed perfectly sensible, almost trivial, to provide anyone on the planet the opportunity to quickly and easily place his prayer in the Kotel". And it's that trivia that'll bug a lot of people, I'm sure.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

The Singularity is… errm… on its way, I think

I’m an optimist. I’m not quite sure why I’m wired that way but I’m perfectly happy with it. Much as you’d expect, I suppose. And although I tend not to tap-dance in the gutter when it’s raining, I firmly believe that life is like a musical.

That’s probably why I’m such a fan of what’s become known as ‘the Singularity’; a point when technology and evolution are expected to combine. As computers become smarter, so they’ll be able to build smarter computers themselves – and before you know it they’ll be repairing people and improving the design. If all goes well I’ll look like a combination of Robocop and Jude Law.

Of course, it might not quite work out that way. Watch out for Skynet, Agent Smith and the Master Control Program.

“Fascinating”, I hear you say. “Bring on the medical nanobots. But what’s all this got to do with mobile phones?”

Excellent question. It’s just that when I start looking towards the future, it seems that current mobile technology is a bit clunky. That’s when my optimism gets a bit shaky. Forget artificial intelligence, I don’t even have decent coverage at home unless I pay Vodafone to steal my broadband with one of its femtocells. Many of us are still using a stylus to peck at tiny on-screen characters. GPS mapping can be painfully slow to respond. Calls drop. Batteries expire. Networks get overcrowded. Even the much-loved iPhone is acclaimed predominantly for its operating system, not for its technological advance.

Which, as Carrie Bradshaw often said, got me to thinking. Exactly what am I looking for in my next phone?

I want plenty of memory. Actually, no I don’t. I want access to the memory that’s on my laptop in my office. The laptop that’s too big to carry everywhere. So perhaps I need a smaller laptop. Maybe I do want plenty of memory after all. Oh, and a physical keyboard. Or at least a decent-sized on-screen keyboard. But not too big, otherwise I’ll have the laptop problem again. And I’ll look a bit daft holding it to my ear. Perhaps the ‘Spider Computer’ that Ericsson mentions in its Life in 2020 project. Mind you, when I was younger (and stronger) I carried a Nokia Communicator for a while. Now, that was a cutting-edge piece of kit.

I’m pretty sure the basic technology I want all exists today. To start with, I can already store all my data in the cloud. I may not trust it but I can certainly do it. Apple’s multi-touch screen was born with the iPhone, while Nokia has patented ultrasonic gesture control. Augmented reality is starting to go mainstream – just imagine how well it would work with a pair of video glasses. (I’ll do without the Bluetooth contact lenses for a while). I can even get a computer that fits into the size of a plug. So my portable, easily controllable device is realistic. Why can’t I find it?

The answer, I fear, is the stuff that’s bugged mobile phone owners since Ernie Wise called Vodafone’s office above the curry house in 1985. It’s battery life. It’s coverage. It’s cost. And it’s combining them all in a device that doesn’t compromise one in favour of the others.

All we seem to be doing at the moment is dancing round the edges of the problem. It feels as though there’s something just waiting to be invented – or improved – or perfected – and then I’ll have the mobile phone I want. I don’t know what the answer is… but I’m hoping it’ll be delivered by singing rats in a gondola. Or something very similar, with music by Marvin Hamlisch.

The future belongs to the geeks

Originally published on Cartoon from

Monday 13 July 2009

Another couple of my favourite-yet-rarely-used words

Anthropomorphism: attributing human qualities to other things or animals

...and, almost inevitably

Sesquipedalian: having many syllables