THE BLOG

Getting Online Under the English Channel

28/01/2014 11:27 GMT | Updated 30/03/2014 10:59 BST

The recent news that Vodafone and EE are to bring 3G and eventually 4G voice and broadband coverage to trains operating in the Channel Tunnel will be welcomed by the tens of thousands of people using it every day. Business travelers will be looking forward to getting some extra work done, not to mention those addicted to games on their tablets that insist on an Internet connection (I struggle with a mild addiction to Simpsons Tapped Out).

What may have escaped the notice of many people is that on journeys from France to the UK, there is already a mobile network available, but it is limited to French mobile phones and those willing to pay the roaming charges. This is run by Bouygues Telecom, Orange and SFR and has been in place since before the 2012 London Olympics.

Here in the UK most travellers are well versed with the problem of having phone calls cut out as their train goes through a tunnel, and very few of us would actually expect our mobile to work under the English Channel at this point.

However, as many who have travelled by train across Europe will have already noticed, the technical challenge of providing mobile coverage in tunnels has been addressed many times before. Cost tends to be the main issue, as there is not just the price of installing a transmitter at various distances down the tunnel, but also the logistics of getting power and a data connection to each point.

The new service should be available to those using the Le Shuttle trains that whisk you and your car from Folkestone to Calais in just 35 minutes, as well as the high-speed passenger trains that run from St Pancras to a multitude of places in Europe. That's the theory of course - my own experience of 3G on one of these trains, even when still in the Kent countryside, was very choppy service. However, this may have been down the speed of the train, the number of passengers who now spend their journey constantly checking their Twitter feed, and the poor coverage generally found in the rural areas that the train passes through.

The biggest worry for many people will be that without that gap in coverage their phone will automatically switch to using data on a European network. The recent EU moves to cap the roaming charges will help, but the current €50 per day cap for roaming charges can still amount to a significant amount if you have data roaming enabled and don't receive the SMS warning you that your phone has switched off from its native network. The EU is moving to abolish roaming charges completely, but this move faces a battle from the operators. Three, however, is trying to capitalise on the forthcoming changes by abandoning roaming charges in the Republic of Ireland, Italy, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Australia and Hong Kong.

The increasing coverage of mobile and Wi-Fi networks is reducing the number of places where you can escape and truly use the old excuse of ignoring calls and emails due to lack of access. Anyone who has worked and travelled for over a decade may look at the peace and quiet of a plane or train as a place to either just relax ahead of a meeting or catch-up on sleep after getting up at 4am to make it to the train station. Almost every journey now is filled by people chatting on their phone and annoying ring tones, and I cannot but wonder how any business was accomplished twenty years ago.

The pace of change for internet connectivity and developments like finally getting an affordable connection under the English Channel is to be welcomed, but all of us who travel need to learn the new 21st Century etiquette needed to avoid being that annoying person who is shouting into their phone.