BBC News

Sun, sea, sand - but a summer without broadband

By Zoe Kleinman
Technology reporter, BBC News

Published
image captionTaking the selfie was easy - sharing it online was not.

I never intended to spend the summer without broadband - even though it wasn't entirely by accident.

I have reported many times on the communities that struggle with poor internet access, so alarm bells should really have rung more loudly in my head when the opportunity arose to spend part of my maternity leave house-sitting a cottage near the seaside.

The location was beautiful. The only snag was that the house had no landline - and therefore no broadband.

No problem, I thought - I'll get one put in. Then I discovered that BT charges £130 - more than one week's statutory maternity pay in the UK or two weeks of standard benefit payment - for installation alone. And it says on its website that you should anticipate at least a two-week wait before the line is operational.

That seemed extravagant for the sake of a few months. I had a smartphone on an old 3G contract (I wasn't yet due a 4G upgrade) so I figured I wouldn't be entirely off the grid and decided to do without.

I certainly wouldn't be alone - according to the Office for National Statistics 16% of British households still have no internet access in 2014.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionSome free wi-fi spots are unmissable

However plenty of public places offer free wi-fi - and in the grand scheme of things there are far more drastic economies to be made than choosing to go without home broadband.

I forgot that you can't sit for long in a public place with an energetic three-year-old and a teething baby. But more crucially I didn't realise how agonisingly slow and patchy mobile internet access can be in rural areas - and how encompassing my digital life actually was.

Money matters

Within three weeks, I had gone overdrawn and forgotten to pay my credit card bill.

I am so used to keeping an eye on my finances online - I check my statement every couple of days via a banking app but I found it rarely loaded successfully on 3G - that I soon found I was spending far more than I thought I was.

My credit card went unpaid because I didn't see the emailed bill. Another consequence of being broadband-free was that the email app on my phone stopped auto-updating and sending me new mail alerts. I only realised when I happened to log on to my account in a cafe and saw the late payment fine.

One pleasant surprise was that my mobile phone bill didn't shoot up. Inevitably I started spending a little more money on calls but the data usage remained within my free allowance most of the time - perhaps because I couldn't actually access much data very often.

Social skills

image copyrightfacebook
image captionThe Facebook app struggled to load on 3G

Socially, I felt increasingly isolated. Pictures and videos posted by friends and contacts on social media were almost always just grey squares as 3G struggled with the richer multimedia data.

Some websites loaded faster than others. This meant I had no net neutrality - my internet consumption was entirely dictated by the pages which loaded first, or indeed at all, rather than what I actually wanted to view.

One particular tabloid turned out to be the most reliable mainstream news outlet in terms of speed, so I now know far more than I ever wanted to about celebrities and their wardrobe choices.

I missed countless invitations. A contact whom I know only via Twitter came to my town on holiday and tweeted me every day suggesting coffee. I didn't once receive the tweet in time to arrange a meeting.

My sister organised a milestone birthday gathering in Las Vegas via an event platform and eventually texted me to ask why I was snubbing it. I hadn't seen it, of course.

I even managed to spam an editor from work with direct messages on Twitter because each one simply disappeared from my screen so I tapped out another, only to see them all reappear two hours later marked sent.

Print pain

A visit to the local library to print out an essential form from the UK government website for an elderly relative took over an hour.

I queued for a pass code to log on to a library PC. Then I queued to get my two-page print request "approved" by the busy librarian. Then I queued again to collect and pay for it.

"But you're a technology reporter!" said a friend.

"Can't you just hack into someone else's wi-fi?"

Well, first of all technically that's not entirely legal. And secondly I'm a journalist, not a hacker.

image captionDownloading this was a labour of love

A friend nearby kindly gave me his wi-fi code - but you can't loiter outside someone's house while they are on holiday for too long without arousing the neighbourhood's suspicion, as I discovered one afternoon while trying to download the CBeebies app for my toddler.

Missing Mumsnet

Then one of the children got ill. Sitting in the bathroom with him I realised I was craving some Mumsnet-style reassurance or level-headed NHS website advice but of course, minutes ticked by, the little wheel scrolled round and the pages didn't load.

Any medical professional will tell you not to stick symptoms into a search engine but it's difficult to conduct a phone call with anyone, let alone your GP or the NHS helpline, when you have a screaming toddler sobbing on your shoulder.

I texted my partner, away on a business trip. "Can you Google toddler diarrhoea treatments?"

Fortunately, by the time he replied (apparently it's not the sort of thing you can do in the middle of a meeting) the situation had improved.

For me it was the final straw, but for many people, particularly in rural and coastal areas, poor internet access is not a choice.

Last month the government announced plans to offer high-speed internet (24 megabits per second or more) to 95% of UK homes and businesses by 2017.

But some organisations like the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) are already saying that's not enough.

"Leaving 5% of the UK without adequate broadband in 2017 is simply not good enough," chairman John Allan told the BBC at the time.

"There is still a long way to go."

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