Always On - Prologue

5G day

This newsletter is intended to promote discussion about my book Always On - each post will be about one chapter and will feature a photo. We talked at one stage of putting photos in the book but couldn’t make that work so I’ve hunted through my archive for relevant images to illustrate each post.

Always On starts with a prologue setting out its themes. It is an account of a day in May 2019 which was significant both in the history of smartphone technology in the UK and for me personally.

The image is of a Huawei 5G modem which was used that day to beam me live into BBC Breakfast from Covent Garden, the first broadcast over 5G on the day EE’s 5G network - the first in the UK. - went live. But, as this brief extract shows, it nearly didn’t happen:

“I plug in my earpiece, the camera operator Emma clips a mic onto my jacket, and I try a speed test on the 5G mobile phone I have been lent by EE. I’m getting 260 Mbps - pretty impressive although the speeds are patchy, even higher if I walk a few yards into the piazza, dropping sharply if I head around the corner.

Now we are connected to Salford and a voice in my ear tells me they will be coming to me for a short hit with presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty in a couple of minutes. There is always a buzz of adrenaline when you do a live TV broadcast. Will I mangle my words, forget a key fact, or even end my whole career by swearing on air? It is a bit like looking over a precipice.

But this is a pretty routine broadcast and the voice in my ear from Salford tells me the picture and sound are both solid as a rock. Then without warning, just a minute before they are due to come to us, the line goes dead. Nothing, nada, zilch.

Cue scratching of heads from the engineers and swearing from the correspondent who asks the traditional helpful question in these circumstances - what the hell has gone wrong and why can’t you fix it?

None of the usual explanations seem to fit - nobody has pulled a cable out, the Salford control room hasn’t cut the feed. Then there is a dawning realisation which causes acute embarrassment to the EE executives standing and watching. The simcard in the Huawei 5G modem has used up its entire data allowance.

It turns out that all the testing done by the engineers over the previous days has chewed through gigabytes of data. Like a profligate traveller watching Netflix on his mobile in the United States we have breached our plan’s limits and been cut off.

Somebody tops up the simcard, and in a minute we are up and running again. The Breakfast producer tells me that fortunately they have found us another slot and soon I am on air talking to Charlie and Naga and waving my 5G phone around.”

The broadcast went smoothly enough. But soon after I came off air, I became aware that, not for the first time, viewers had noticed the tremor in my right hand. A few months earlier I had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and at that time only a few close friends and colleagues knew. But later that morning, prompted by a producer who asked me whether I had thought about going public about my condition, I picked up my smartphone and dashed off this tweet:

Within minutes my phone lit up with messages from friends, journalistic rivals and complete strangers all, apart from one conspiracy theorist suggesting that my condition had been caused by standing too close to a phone mast, offering sympathy and solidarity.

It was a vivid example of the positive side of what this book describes as the social smartphone era - a time when technology became personal, when we got used to carrying extremely powerful computers in our pockets and connecting with friends, strangers, celebrities and even Presidents and Prime Ministers via new networks which appeared to democratise communication. There was also of course a negative side, and the book will go on to explore this balance between hope in the technology and fear of what it’s doing to individuals and to society.

Always On is published on May 13th - you can preorder here