Thomas Tugendhat is the author of The Fog of Law, published by Policy Exchange. He was previously Military Assistant to the Chief of the Defence Staff.
Over the past decade I have worked in some of the most remote places in the world. From Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan to Bamako in Mali and many parts in between I have seen differences between culture, architecture, creed and infrastructure. But I have also seen one thing that is strikingly similar – everyone is obsessed with mobile phones.
For much of the world’s population the arrival of the mobile is the only step in the communications revolution. For the Pashtun tribesman there were never any landlines to call home and nomads outside Port Sudan had no access to post boxes.
Today they have jumped straight into the mobile age. The arrival of a cell tower and a cheap handset means everyone can be connected to the each other. And, through the internet, to business opportunities, religious zealots, Nigerian finance, curious medicines and disappointing sports news.
Foe me this change has meant one thing – podcasts. There is something strangely comforting about standing on the banks of the Helmand River listening to the ever more preposterous affairs of Ambridge intertwined with the need to check for veroa mites. It’s a form of meditation. For a few moments you aren’t in Afghanistan.
But the reverse would be impossible. An Afghan trying to follow the progress of democracy or women’s rights in the fictional village featured in New Lives, New Hope would have to wait for his return to Kabul. Britain’s 3G coverage is so poor that many rural areas get nothing.
To think that technology now so widespread even a rural Afghan has it but it isn’t available 40 miles from London is a scandal. But from my work in and around Edenbridge, Tonbridge and Malling it is clear that the rural communities of Britain have been ignored.
But the biggest disgrace is not that when Gordon Brown pocketed £22 billion from the sale of 3G licences it failed to extend the coverage to farmers, accountants, industries and many other rural businesses. No. It is that the innovative auction system which ensured we got the best price for permits could have been changed by the Chancellor and his and his special advisers – Ed Miliband and Ed Balls – to include the rural communities but they chose not to.
How do I know that it was possible? Because France did it. And when the French sold the licences the operators had to cope with a similar population size spread over double the land area. For those who have used the Channel Tunnel the difference is striking.
Speeding through Kent the signal is unworkable. Coming and going no one can hold a conversation and barely even send an e-mail but the moment you’re through the tunnel – ping! – the messages whizz through.
That’s because France’s government understood one thing – mobile telephones are our generation’s postal service and with them must come the universal service obligation.
Today, 98 per cent of French people have access to 3G, the minimum required to make modern apps work. That compares to 80 per cent for the UK. But the difference is more than simply 18 percentage points. As four in five live in urban areas, this is a deliberate urban-rural divide.
That means that one in five Britons, not only on remote islands but just a commuter distance from the capital, can’t access 3G services because Labour only bothered ensuring that their own urban voters were covered. This saved the mobile phone operators a fortune because it is the remote communities who are the most expensive to cover.
That left families in rural areas, businesses, farms, schools and, yes, political hopefuls who find themselves outside built up areas struggling with little or no coverage.
Today, the Conservative-led government has begun reversing the digital deficit of Labours two tier system. Not only is broadband coming to villages and hamlets across the country including my own in West Kent where 95 percent of the county will be covered by the end of next year.
But the Labour’s legacy of bias remains. Until the roll out of 4G – which has the obligation to cover 98 percent of the population – Scots, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Cumbrians, Northumbrians and even Kentish Men, Men of Kent and wandering Afghans will be forced to wait before accessing the Archers on the move.
That hardly sounds like one nation to me.