Living in a mobile data desert

Recently I wrote about the experience of using mobile devices in Hong Kong where networks have ubiquitous coverage. The phone effectively became a fourth space filling in the small bits of useless time commuting or at other points of the day with content or entertainment. The experience in the UK outside of London contrasts sharply with this experience.
This is what I have been seeing when I have traveled by train out of London, or a lot of the time when I walked around Birkenhead and Liverpool. And Vodafone are thought to have one of the better networks in the UK. I do see the 3G logo regularly but it is intermittent, if the network was a car it would be an old British sports car like a Triumph Stag where you need to carefully nurse along the signal in order to get the basics of what you need done and are grateful for the brief bursts of adequate performance received.

And this is on Vodafone which is one of the better mobile networks. EE’s much vaunted network seems to attract much more complaints based on the anecdotal evidence that I have seen. And the real-world performance I have seen across various networks doesn’t seem to match with network coverage maps.

In countries like Vietnam that have similarly spotty data networks, 3G coverage has been supplemented or even supplanted by ubiquitous free Wi-Fi in urban areas provided by local businesses as a hygiene factor. In the UK, Wi-Fi is seen as a profit centre or a way of gathering marketing insights so consumers have to go through laborious registration processes a lot of the time. Trying to log into the free Wi-Fi networks of two branches of UK supermarket chain ASDA ended up being exercises in futility – these networks were run for ASDA by EE. Part of the reason for this is that the UK high street is being eaten alive by charity shops and a move online for non-impulse purchase goods. Another reason is that legislation like the Digital Economy Act in the UK makes having open Wi-Fi networks a risky proposition.

So one has a similar situation in the UK, to China where registration is required using authentication via SMS, for a network via Chinese mobile phone number. The main difference is that most UK networks use email and registered password to govern network sessions.

A secondary aspect of these network issues is that my phone goes through its battery much faster. All of this caused me to change my mobile behaviour, check-ins became too laborious, so I would only use Foursquare in places I saw had good network strength at the time.

I quickly learned which apps were leaner on bandwidth and so would perform with an acceptable amount of lag. I became increasingly aware that app and mobile web developers work from an assumption that mobile data is ubiquitous and plentiful. Taking a leaner approach to bandwidth usage would improve performance on fast networks as well as making their applications work on tolerably on networks like the one I am currently ‘enjoying’.

My current network provider sent me an SMS asking me if I want to upgrade to get more mobile data on my plan. I have been pondering this as I am not so sure that I will have a network where I will be able to use the extra capacity even if I had it?

More information
Living in a mobile laboratory
Fairer contracts urged after mobile phone complaints soar | The Observer