The digital divide in the UK

I’m writing this article at 35,000ft above sea-level, on a flight from London Heathrow to Atlanta. Before taking off, I sat in the marvel of Heathrow’s Terminal 5 building watching MotoGP on my smartphone, in what looked like an immaculate resolution.

My daughter on Ben Nevis - with a view like that, who would prefer to check their phone?
My daughter on Ben Nevis during the summer – with a view like that, who else would prefer to check their phone?

At the start of the summer, I took most of the family and some friends to Fort William to climb Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest peak. Whilst the 2001 census reported that Fort William has only 10,000 people living in the town, I suspect there is regularly the same number again in tourists and visitors. Whilst in Fort William, my phone hardly had any reception. In fact, my mobile hardly worked north of Glasgow. Other members of the journey were on different networks, and coverage was also patchy across the group.

Later in the summer we visited Cornwall for a week. I’d never visited the region before, and we had a great time. Phone coverage, let alone data, was almost nil. My wife’s phone, on a different network, fared better, but it was still a far cry from coverage in London. When we spoke to our Cornish hosts, they told us of whole towns that don’t have any mobile coverage.

Adding insult to injury, on our holidays, we heard on the radio that EE announced that they would be rolling out 4G to Saltash in Cornwall. Saltash has a population of 15,000, and the radio reporters were expressing their frustration how the half million residents of Cornwall (plus the tourists) just wanted thorough mobile coverage, then any data coverage, before worrying about 4G.

This is not a technology issue. Australia boasts fantastic mobile coverage, including data, across colossal distances as demonstrated by this Telstra coverage map. The UK has the most competitive mobile network market in the World and it’s over a relatively tiny area – it’s about time that the coverage quality lived up to this competition.

Mobile coverage 250ft beneath the sea
Mobile coverage 250ft beneath the sea

After our week in Cornwall, we went camping in France. Friends at the camp had taken out reasonably priced international data packages, and were continuously updating Facebook and social networks anywhere wherever we were. The biggest surprise was the coverage in the Eurotunnel. At 250ft beneath the English Channel, we all had full mobile coverage.

It’s 2014 and many employees work from home in remote parts of the country. I know someone who runs a .com business in rural Wales and repeatedly complains about the digital divide between the large English cities and the rest of the country. This was the first time I’d experienced the divide. And it’s not so much a divide, it’s a chasm.

The issue with the mobile coverage is the knock on effect. My friends posting pictures in France helps promote those areas to their friends. The missed opportunities of sharing experiences in Cornwall leads to lost revenue.

In London, we have digital litter bins showing the weather and videos; video advertising on walls and in Tube stations. It’s pure science fiction compared to Cornwall and Fort William.

Last week Tesco upgraded their self-service checkouts to card-only touch screens. Now wouldn’t you prefer to save more time while on holiday?

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