Mobile network accessibility: A privilege for smart phone users only?

By Izabela Mielewczyk

19 May 2016

We care about accessibility and usability beyond digital. Read our thoughts on older technologies and the value that some people still place on them.

When it comes to accessibility in the context of digital, here at Storm ID we usually think about people with disabilities and what we can do to make our products and services easier for them to use. The Global Accessibility Awareness Day is an opportunity to think and talk about accessibility and usability beyond digital. Here are some thoughts on older technologies and the value that some people still place on them.

The theory of feature phones

At the beginning of the year, “The Theory of Everything” star Eddie Redmayne made a comment on how he went back to using an old “feature” phone, which provides basic voice and text messaging services. He is not alone in his preference for older technologies. In this case, he was expressing how he found feature phone technology to be more usable.

We are living in a time when many of us cannot imagine our lives without connected devices like smart watches, smartphones and smart TVs. Being constantly connected and available for our families, friends and co-workers seems to be a reality for so many of us. In addition, we’ve also become addicted to the apps which are supposed to make our lives easier. From maps, to banking and airlines… it is hard to say no to today’s technology, because of its supposed convenience. But some people do say no and some people have no choice.

Where people have used smartphones, some are now ditching them, because they:

  • need to be charged every day
  • are often expensive to buy but also to repair
  • are not as durable as devices used to be a few years ago
  • don't have physical buttons which some people find easier to use than touch screens
  • come with sensors and other hardware features which provide security that is often beyond people’s ability to use correctly

The case for feature phones and 2G

Whilst some people have reverted to using feature phones as a matter of preference, some also keep a feature phone as a backup. For many, however, it is the only device and the only option. These old school devices are often given to elderly people, refugees, disaster victims, and people in crisis situations in different parts of the world. Access to the network in these scenarios provides them with the ability to contact loved ones or look for help in emergencies.

Older feature phones like those produced by Nokia or Siemens are often used by travellers or people living in small villages where there is little or no internet access. They are mainly connected to the 2G network, a network which may be turned off in the next few years.

Looking to the horizon

Technologies like by Facebook or Project Loon by Google are being developed in order to bring internet access to people that do not currently have it, e.g. people living in rural or remote areas. Their aim is to give people the possibility to connect with each other, share their experiences and to help fill network coverage gaps. While technologies like these are the future of communication and will in due course provide the best possible data services, some people may still depend on the 2G network.

2G was introduced around 1991 and although it is very slow, it’s a working, fully tested, and pretty reliable network. For some people it is the only one available. If it is turned off, people will have to use 3G or faster networks, if available. For some, that would also mean a change of device, including the associated costs that come with it.

"When all people have the power to share their experiences, the entire world will make progress."

The haves and have nots

In some rural areas in the UK, there are only a few shops and many of the bank branches are now closed. People living in these areas are now encouraged to do much of their shopping and other tasks online and to start using digital banking. The only problem is that they live in locations served by 2G networks only – so how would these people be able to access the internet if the 2G network was to be turned off?

In other parts of the world, technology is moving fast. We are at the outset of self-driving cars, homes full of smart devices, machine learning and the internet of things. Companies like Apple and Samsung are releasing new and better devices every year. All of these devices will make good use of the latest mobile connectivity on offer, all of which will come at a cost. But what about those who will still rely on 2G? They may be negatively impacted in the immediate short term.

Spare a thought for 2G users

High speed connectivity clearly has a bright future. It can offer better and faster connectivity. However, in a time of change, network operators should acknowledge that there are people who choose to use older technologies, either because they prefer it or due to a lack of alternatives, and who rely on 2G connectivity to access the outside world.

On Global Accessibility Awareness Day, as we surf the web on our 4G smartphones, let’s spare a thought for those who will be using their 2G devices to connect to the outside world, and for whom it makes a huge difference whether or not this network will cease to exist.