November 3, 2023

GUEST BLOG: Bad Wi-Fi And Smombie Envy: Iain Morris of LightReading Tries A Day Without A Mobile

Guest blog by Iain Morris, Editor, Light Reading - This article has been replicated from Light Reading and can be found here.

Mobile UK challenged me to spend 24 hours without a SIM in my phone. Here's how it went.

A day without mobile connectivity sounded much easier than a month without alcohol, the usual deprivation challenge that twenty-first century Brits set themselves. When it was put to me a few weeks ago by Mobile UK, a trade body representing the interests of UK telcos, my immediate reaction was an internal guffaw. Pah, I disdainfully snorted. I'm no millennial smartphone addict. Don't they know they're dealing with someone who previously cooked his gadget next to the Christmas roast and had to go phoneless for several days?

Mobile UK's entire purpose is to champion the importance of and need for cellular technology, so conscripting journalists to live temporarily without it and then recount their experience of going cold turkey (as opposed to hot turkey seasoned with electronics) seems like a pretty clever PR move. The basic rules of the game for participating reporters are simple: Remove the SIM card from your phone at a time of your choosing and don't reinsert it until the same time the next day except in the event of an emergency. This presumably means something medical, being attacked by the neighbour’s dog or breaking down in the Scottish Highlands with no food or water – and not, as someone suggested, finding that the home broadband is kaput when you were about to order a pizza.

It also means you still have access to Wi-Fi and other phone features. It's obvious why an association promoting cellular allows this, but it's risky given that a) market research shows most smartphone data is on Wi-Fi networks; b) keyboard warriors rarely venture outdoors; and c) phones increasingly hold appeal as offline, multipurpose tools for playing games, reading articles or listening to downloaded music.

I had several false starts, delaying the experiment because of scheduled work calls, meetings on unfamiliar London streets (less dodgy than it sounds) and the need to keep tabs on a teenage skateboarder pulling off kickflips in far-flung neighbourhoods. This evidently delighted my contacts at Mobile UK, who took it – not unreasonably – as evidence that Iain Morris can't survive without mobile.

Clanging into lampposts

Last Friday eventually found me scrabbling around at 6 a.m. for the safety pin-like key that ejects the tiny SIM card tray on the latest iPhones. I'd purposely risen and started early so that I could finish some writing assignments and then take my son out to lunch, as promised. The plan after that was to leave him skateboarding on Clapham Common while I made use of a nearby café and its Wi-Fi facilities for afternoon work.

The morning consequently felt like a bit of a cheat. The phone still pinged with WhatsApp messages delivered over residential Wi-Fi and remained a handy way to check the previous night's US Open tennis results. But almost as soon as I left home for the ten-minute walk to the local bus stop, I felt edgy about missing calls and messages.

There is undoubtedly a positive side to all this. As someone who can vaguely recall the pre-mobile-phone era of arranging to meet somebody well in advance – and having to be reasonably organized and punctual even as a discombobulated, hungover student – I worry about overreliance on tech. Increasing talk of "critical" infrastructure does not sound healthy when even the most secure infrastructure can fail.

What's more, while I take schadenfreude from watching smartphone zombies (smombies, for short) clang into lampposts or topple into fountains, I can't honestly say I've never been glued to my own device screen on the move. Take away cellular connectivity and you cure this particular disease, or at least make the symptoms less severe.

Yet I didn't feel liberated to enjoy my surroundings instead, and I was constantly reaching for my disconnected gadget like a chain smoker fumbling at an empty cigarette packet. Minus cellular, a modern smartphone on a residential street can still function as a camera, photo album and phonebook. But unless you studiously avoid streaming over the public cloud, it's not even good as an MP3 player. I sidestepped smombies with envy.

My next concern was if the iPhone's near-field communications (NFC) wizardry would allow me to pay for a bus ticket, coffee and other sundries without a mobile connection. As a telecom journalist, I should really have known this. But I didn't. The contactless bank debit card I was carrying as backup proved unnecessary, but I couldn't use the Monzo app to check what I was spending on the SIM-less phone. This is irritating for a scrooge who worries about runaway inflation and the impact of buying two or three flat whites on the daily budget.

Disembarking the bus at Rookery Road, next to the Clapham Common skatepark, I left the youngster to a few pre-lunch ollies and told him to meet me at Café Nero when he was ready to eat. My edginess grew and then mutated into laptop-bashing anger shortly after I'd bought my coffee. I had neglected to factor in the vagaries of public Wi-Fi, and the service at this café was appalling, possibly because a dozen other keyboard warriors were already on it. Normally, I would have tethered my laptop to my phone's 4G or 5G connection and prayed for half-decent indoor coverage. But this would have broken Mobile UK's rules.

In a semi-panic, I jogged back up to Clapham Common and hoped Wandsworth's aspiring Tony Hawk hadn't passed me unseen in the other direction. By the time I had retrieved him and we'd finally eaten a late-ish lunch, I'd lost a good couple of hours. As disruptive as this seemed on the day, SIM-lessness could have been much more disruptive if I had started work at a normal hour with meetings and calls arranged. On an overseas trip, it could have been a disaster.

Umbilically attached

Indeed, dropping anyone umbilically attached to a smartphone into an unfamiliar environment and disabling their connectivity would probably qualify as a human-rights abuse these days. Minus Apple Maps, I could not even locate the nearest alternative café just a few miles from home. Fortunately, they are everywhere in Clapham. But trying to find offices, hotels and other venues in strange foreign cities was never very pleasant before the mobile Internet existed – unless you're a fan of wrestling with street maps or bothering locals.

As for other gadgetry, data gathered by Mobile UK shows that people routinely underestimate just how much they rely on networks of one kind or another. The average person is apparently connected to as many as 26 devices, and yet 70% of respondents to a survey reckoned they had fewer than 10. Of those, 42% thought they were connected to no more than four devices. The actual number for this subset was 21 on average.

Back home in the evening, I felt relief. Other broadband technologies inevitably make cellular less important than the mobile industry would like it to be. But there are places they do not reach, and it's not as if those are limited to mountaintops, deserts and rainforests. For good or ill, a few hours in the mobile dark had been more disconcerting and difficult than I'd expected, even in my home city. Seems I'm hooked after all.

About Iain Morris - International Editor at LightReading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

About Building Mobile Britain

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Building Mobile Britain is a campaign created by Mobile UK seeking to work with national and local government, as well as interested industry groups to overcome the challenges we face with expanding the existing mobile networks, while also developing innovative services for customers.

See here for further information - or #BuildingMobileBritain

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