Communications breakdown

Patricia Feehily


Patricia Feehily

Communications breakdown

My kingdom for a signal: Two days without a mobile phone almost broke our columnist Patricia Feehily

FORGIVE me for being parochial this week, but communications are breaking down all around me and I’ve forgotten how to cope without having instant links to the rest of humanity.

On Saturday morning my mobile phone said ‘no service’ and it felt like someone had suddenly cut off my oxygen supply. I waited an hour before opening it up to see if there were any loose wires – as I do with the bonnet of the car not knowing what to look for apart from smoke or fire. The last time I lost the phone signal I was deep underground, half a mile inside the Aillwee caves, wondering how I was going to call for help if the roof collapsed. But the minute I emerged into the sunlight, the claustrophobia lifted and coverage was restored

Was it really possible, I asked myself, that I had survived for most of my life without ever having even envisaged such a contraption as a mobile phone?

Had I forgotten to pay the bill, I wondered, or had a piece of the mechanism fallen out when I opened the back? Perish the thought, had my mobile service provider abandoned rural Ireland in advance of the expected realisation of John Moran’s urban idyll? Then I glanced out the window and saw that a whole row of mature sycamore trees had burst into leaf overnight. That’s it, I said: the signal is stuck in the dense foliage.

I took the phone to elevated sites, but still ‘no service’. I took it across the bridge of Killaloe hoping to find coverage in Clare, and met a couple of other anaemic looking people who were also suffering mobile signal deprivation. We had a chat and I didn’t feel so isolated anymore.

However, it took me half an hour to get across the bridge because of a Saturday morning traffic build-up and because some environmentalist based in Galway is objecting to the planned new by-pass bridge.

He, apparently, is acting on behalf of the swans and snails that live on the riverbank. I’m afraid I have no sympathy with the cause, not because I was once attacked by one of the more hostile descendants of Lir, but because I’m a regular victim of the choked traffic problems that plague Killaloe and Ballina, and also because the grand old bridge that reputedly served Brian Boru, is falling down and it’s only a matter of time before we all end up floundering in the Shannon. When that happens, I hope I’ll have coverage.

I spent two days in all without a signal. Family members were distraught when they couldn’t reach me – and eventually they had to resort to the landline which they had forgotten all about in this multimedia age. I had to resort to contacting the mobile company on-line, because there was only an automaton at the end of the phone, sending me around in circles and making me feel as if I had lost the signal myself due to carelessness.

The company suggested ‘a chat’ with one of their agents. “Press here for a chat,” and before I knew it, I was in a chat room for the first time ever.

The chat was loaded against me from the start. I had no idea who I was chatting with, where he or she was, or what they looked or sounded like or even if it was a robot. On the other hand, the agent, with an Asian name, knew everything about me, including my date of birth, which I rarely disclose. I was stumped at the start, until the agent threatened to call off the conversation altogether if I didn’t say something. Then I launched into a long rant and ran out of typing space before I could fully explain my problem. He (I presume it was a he) asked if I could see the bars on my phone and when I said I couldn’t, he went off to check coverage in my area.

“There is full coverage in your area,” he wrote. Even the swans and the snails had coverage apparently.

He told me I’d have to find a network manually on my phone.

“How?” I typed, plaintively. “I’m too old.”

He paused a while and then asked me the make of my phone and the model. I told him the name and said I didn’t know what model it was, but it was supposed to be smart. He should have been in hysterics at this stage, but his typing remained calm and composed.

Eventually, after several unproductive exchanges, he told me to switch it off and turn it on again, and hey presto, it worked. I had a service again, and I thanked him profusely. “My pleasure,” he replied, and then signed off, saying he was glad we “had the chat”. I must have made his day.

Then the company asked me to rate both him and my chat experience, one to ten. Naturally, I gave him 100 per cent, but they still weren’t happy and wanted to know why I had given this rating. “I don’t know: he sounded human,” I replied.

The whole episode, however, made me realise that the lines of communication in general are not as satisfying as they once were in rural Ireland. Nobody is chatting over the garden fence anymore, partly because it’s ten feet high now and made of concrete, and partly because the chatter is all in the cloud. Apart from a few older farmers around here - who wouldn’t dream of letting an oncoming vehicle pass on a narrow road without stopping their own cars and rolling down the window for a chat, holding up all other traffic in the process – the rest of us, conditioned by technology and with no time to spare, have become very aloof. We’ve forgotten what it was like to have a good old chinwag, and some of us have no way at all of letting off steam.