It’s good to talk – providing the reception’s OK

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There are people who might be astonished to discover that simply losing telephone contact can be a very serious matter.

The curse of Alexander Graham Bell is easily seen in the dependency we now place on telecommunications.

Nowadays, thanks to the mobile phone and its derivatives, we assume instant contact with the world anytime we choose, but for some the landline remains communication of the first rather than last resort. In many rural areas, mobile phone coverage is still a rather fragmented affair and that includes mobile broadband.

On my summer jaunts to the Northumberland coast I use the service provided by Orange for mobile phone and broadband coverage – and to be honest, although it is touted as having better coverage than rival suppliers, it is intermittent and at times non-existent.

At the caravan site at Dunstan Hill, for example, mobile phone contact is more or less restricted to a modest earth mound near to the main entrance, while at Beadnell Bay the signal booms through, enabling me to phone home from the comfort of my housetruck, rather than loitering in the cold and rain hoping for a slight improvement in signal strength.

The spectacle of an odd-looking old guy wandering about in the dark apparently muttering to himself can be unsettling for my fellow campers, so I keep that to a minimum. I should add that all this happens within an hour’s drive from the Newcastle area which has one of the highest population densities in the UK.

Modern society accepts telephone communication as freely available, so any deprivation of service leaves a void for which little or no fallback exists – clearly a perfect chance for disaster as we all know the timing of any mishap is entirely random, so hoping for the best is no substitute for a good old-fashioned plan B at any time.

Chopping an underground cable of any kind is not all that unusual, with few people confidently aware of what is under the ground around them. The telephone variety is maybe preferable to slicing into a high-voltage electricity supply with a digger bucket – a trick guaranteed to produce a huge blue flash and excuse the digger driver from eating bran flakes at breakfast time for several days thereafter.

I can’t explain why, but it is in fact quite unusual for anyone to be injured as a result of such mishaps, apart from being on the receiving end of a very hard stare when the boss discovers how much his insurance premiums go up at the next renewal.

In the case of the Ettrick Valley, I must concede I do not know of any solution that might help in matters of communication. Any thoughts of radio back-up should be treated with some caution as the geography does not lend itself to simple radio reception, and given the serious cash spent by the emergency services on their own radio communications there would soon be doubts about cost effectiveness.

Thirty or forty years ago, it was not by any means unusual to observe strange devices like a double bed on its side, up there on the valley skyline, looking for all the world like a big noticeboard, but without a notice. I am led to believe these were in fact rudimentary devices intended to bounce a television signal from where it could be received, down to lower-lying habitation, enabling the resident population to tune in to what passed for television entertainment.

I don’t know if the television signal has improved since those days, but one thing is for sure, the quality of programmes certainly has not! In a similar vein the sight of a conventional television antenna halfway up a brae face on the end of a very extended cable was for some time a common sight. Signal boosters sold well in such places, but I am told reception was at best intermittent and not all channels were possible.

So where does that leave the valley folk as they voice their concerns about emergency cover?

The absurd side of my imagination ponders over a loft of doos, flag-waving semaphore signallers or begging space on some kind of satellite set-up. In any case an emergency will always require a certain amount of haste, be it a fire, sudden onset of illness or accident, so there is indeed a clear need to provide residents of remote areas with some means to back-up whatever they use for day-to-day communication.

In the second decade of the 21st century, this should not be seen as either impossible or impractical.

On a slightly more lucid note, I wonder if we have made too much progress with our telephone systems. In the bad old days we had telephone lines strung along every roadside on poles, well above the reach of all but the most obsessively-destructive digger driver.

Fair enough, there were seasonal problems with shooters occasionally peppering the line insulators with shot, and the occasional driver pranging into a pole – but by and large, and with the highly-professional standards of maintenance delivered on a 24/7 by Dougie Squance and his BT associates, there were few real problems.

In the final analysis of the situation it all boils down to the amount of importance allocated to the problem by those with the job of providing the solution.

The first move is to establish a more reliable structure for detecting faults and if that means installing alarms to sound if there is an interruption to the system, then so be it. It might even be the case such alarms are already in place.

At one time alarms were fitted to electricity cables to deter the high-risk methods of thieves who came to the valleys to nick the stuff. How they avoided being fried is a mystery, but a solution was eventually found which works to this day, and I’m not saying what it is.

So, all in all we have come a long way since 1876 when Edinburgh-born Alexander Graham Bell patented the first workable telephone just ahead of a shedload of other inventors who must have been really poked off at his success.

All we now need is an inventor who can perfect a digger-proof phone cable – and for the folk of Ettrick Valley all will be well.