dependence: the situation in which you need something or someone all the time, especially in order to continue existing or operating
The phone fired a low battery warning.
The second in as many minutes.
Then the screen faded to black. Dramatic. Final. More than a little inconvenient.
I glared at it. Swore at it. Stabbed at it with my finger. Unsuccessfully attempted to raise it from the dead using sheer force of will.
As phones go, the handset could be considered old. Not old like the universe, the dinosaurs, or how my kids perceive me to be. But old nonetheless. Its battery no longer held a charge for long. Back when I bought it, the manufacturer boasted of a battery life of “up to” 15 hours of usage. That had been an exaggeration then, today it was an outright lie. No longer capable of making it through a business day without an afternoon siesta to recharge.
I sighed. The phone manufacturer’s warranty had expired.
So too had the free extended warranty offered by the store I had purchased it from.
I reluctantly conceded the tipping point had been reached: frustration exceeding utility. It was time to replace the handset.
Now some people all get excited at the prospect of buying a new toy. The geeks and the fanbois. Investing countless hours researching and evaluating the best model. The best deal. The best price.
I’m not one of those people. A long time ago, I used to care about such things. Indeed, I once did the sums and worked it that it was cheaper to fly to New York, buy a laptop, and fly back than it was to buy the equivalent model in London. I didn’t get much sleep, but enjoyed a fantastic weekend.
Today I simply looked up what the modern equivalent of the phone I already had was, then did a quick comparison shop to see what the handset only prices were. Why pay for a £30-40 per month contract to lease a handset whose value depreciates by £20 each month?
Buying direct from the manufacturer cost a lot. Brexit. Inflation. Luxury tax. Semi-conductor shortage. Choose your own excuse.
A high street retailer’s website advertised the unit for £50 less, with free next day delivery.
Apply a voucher code to knock another 10% off the price.
Make the purchase through a cashback portal to obtain a further 2% discount.
Pay for it using a reward card to reduce the price by another 1%.
Commit to selling the old handset to recoup roughly a quarter of the list price of the new one.
Still not cheap, but less expensive than it might have been.
So far, so good. A problem observed, addressed, and resolved. Or so I thought.
Years ago I had switched from using a physical SIM card to an eSIM. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Same functionality. Same network coverage. Same price. Yet it freed up the physical SIM card slot. This meant one handset could simultaneously support two different phone numbers. No more having to carry separate work and personal phones to client sites.
The setup worked a treat, I recommend it, but only to those who have the self-discipline to step away from work without being tempted to be one of those toadying brown-nosers who is “always on”. At the constant beck and call of some pointy-headed, friendless, insomniac, micromanaging, workaholic boss. Or constantly competing in the corporate Game of Thrones against cutthroat colleagues and ambitious underlings.
But here is the thing. Swapping a physical SIM from one handset to another is simple: just shift over the card. Transferring an eSIM should be even easier. But as it turns out, the lived experience differs.
For reasons that defy explanation, when I requested my mobile network help me transfer my number to the new handset, they unhelpfully chose to immediately deactivate my eSIM, while failing to provision a new one for the new phone.
Which left me possessing double the handsets and none of the mobile network access.
The handsets could both access the internet via wifi. Could successfully communicate with the world via email or WhatsApp. Play games. Display e-books. Browse all my favourite websites.
However, it turns out what they could not do was receive SMS messages.
Which meant they could not receive two-factor authentication texts or one-time passcodes. Think about that for a moment.
How many apps, services, or websites do you use that insist on validating you still physically control your phone number?
And after the recent introduction of Strong Customer Authentication (SCA) requirements in the United Kingdom, just about every single website that processes online payments!
Some sites do offer an alternative means of authenticating, although for many this entailed them attempting to call the customer’s phone number. The same number that was no longer connected to my handset.
Very few offered alternate means of two-factor authentication, such as via email. Fewer still supported authentication via token generating app or hardware key.
I was somewhat surprised to realise that simply being a customer was no longer enough. Now we must be customers with access to our mobile phones. Losing access to the number means losing access altogether.
The change has been gradual. Creeping. Stealthy. Yet relentless.
In this instance, it also proved more than a little annoying.
I won’t pretend this is the first time that badly implemented two-factor authentication has tripped me up. Many of the financial institutions I use overseas insist upon its usage. Several only support sending one-time passcodes to local domestic phone numbers. This creates a potential problem for ex-pats like myself. An inconvenience, yet one easily worked around via cheap pay-as-you-go burner phones.
I wish I could tell you that a humble plea to a prompt and responsive customer support team cured my woes. That a heroic help desk technician boldly stepped up, took ownership of the problem, and solved it. Alas, that would be a lie.
Instead, I’ve had a week where I’ve been paying for access to a mobile service I was unable to use.
Which just so happened to be the final week of the tax year. The last chance to top up ISAs. The week to check those salary sacrificed bonus payments made it into the pension ok. It also spanned a month end, when I would normally invest half an hour doing a cursory lap around my personal finances to keep score and ensure I hadn’t been robbed.
The experience has been an eye-opening one. An unfortunate combination of impatience and incompetence culminated in losing access to something I took for granted. That absence shone a spotlight on a major dependency I had not been consciously aware of: the tight coupling and ever increasing dependence between our mobile phones and our lives online.
Over the years I have often questioned the need for a mobile phone. Resenting the invasion of privacy, the being constantly contactable, the expectation of being “always on”. Now I realise just how difficult it would be to function in today’s world without one.
Much like the “unbanked” struggle to obtain rental accommodation or employment, today the “unphoned” would find it difficult to shop, bank, or pay bills online. Which given we increasingly live in an electronic virtual world, dominated by the provision of automated, self-service, mobile-first activities, makes reliable access to a mobile network one of the essential tools for successfully navigating modern life.
I must confess to having mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I love the convenience. Yet I am not sure the dependence is a good thing. Particularly given how easy it proved to be to separate a mobile phone number from a handset!