The Null Device


The latest example of the caprice of artificial borders: residents of a coastal village in Kent have found themselves facing high mobile phone bills as their phones latch onto signals from France, across the channel. Then, when their iPhones and Samsung Galaxys inevitably fetch data from the internet, they incur extortionate roaming charges, set at the dawn of time when mobile data abroad was the province of executives with deep expense accounts and left in place because bilking people for checking the email across a border is a nice little earner for the phone companies.

The bay is blocked by the white cliffs from receiving UK signals and people in the village sometimes get connected to the French network depending on atmospheric conditions and the weather. Nigel Wydymus, landlord of the Coastguard pub and restaurant next to the beach, said: "We are a little telecommunications enclave of France here.
The phone company, helpfully, advised residents of and visitors to such villages to switch off mobile data roaming:
The spokesman from EE, which covers the T-Mobile and Orange networks, said: "We always recommend our customers switch off roaming while they are in this little pocket of an area to ensure that they are connecting to the correct network, because we cannot control the networks from the other side of the water."
This minor absurdity is a result of the distortions of topology caused by a system whose building block is the post-Treaty of Westphalia nation-state, and which, by fiat, sets the distance between any two points within such a state to be a constant. From the mobile phone system's perspective, the distance from Dover to nearby Folkestone is exactly the same as that to London, Glasgow or Belfast, all of which are orders of magnitude nearer than Calais across the Channel. The costs of carrying the data across a system of base stations and trunk cables is part of the settlement of maintaining the legal fiction of the unitary nation-state; the sharp shock of roaming charges is the other side of the coin, a licence for the carriers to make a bit back from the tourists and business travellers, who are either in no position to complain or are used to the data they consume on the go being an expensive premium service. After all, it costs a lot to live in The Future.

Kent isn't the only place where travellers may find themselves virtually (though potentially expensively) abroad; a while ago, I was walking in Cumbria, near Ravenglass, and found myself on the Isle of Man (a separate jurisdiction with its own phone companies and, lucratively, roaming rates).

I wonder how this situation is handled on the continent, where the phones of people living near borders are likely to inadvertently cross them on numerous occasions. Do, say, Dutch phone companies charge roaming Belgians local rates? Do Italians find themselves inadvertently roaming in Switzerland or Croatia? Or do base stations on either side of a border do double-duty, serving both countries' carriers as if they were local?

economics geography mobile phones uk 1