Mobile Coverage Reaches New Heights

Last October I made a long, gruelling trek to the base camp of Mount Everest, braving blisters, altitude sickness and a never-ending supply of dal bhat (lentils and rice) to reach the foot of the world’s highest mountain. It was a spectacular experience, not least because of the remoteness and the simple way of life enjoyed by the local Nepalese. So my ears pricked up last week when I heard that 3G coverage had now reached the foot of Mount Everest.

European operator TeliaSonera won the race to bring 3G connections to the area. Its local subsidiary Ncell is using a solar-powered mobile base station located more than 5,000 m above sea level, although coverage doesn’t yet extend all the way to the summit. TeliaSonera can also claim the distinction of operating the world’s lowest 3G base station, 1,400 m below sea level in a mine in Europe.

On hearing the news, I couldn’t help but wonder what Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would have made of it. When they became the first men to conquer the peak in 1953, they were supported by a team of over 400 people carrying a total of 7.5 tons of support equipment — probably more than the weight of Ncell’s new base station.

I also wondered how impressed my friends in London would have been if the base station had been there last October, and I could have made a video call or sent them an e-mail from one of the most striking places on the planet.

Although the 3G connection is mainly targeted at the hordes of trekkers who descend on the region every year, it can bring great benefits to the Khumbu locals too. There are clear opportunities in terms of education and medical care that have the potential to make lasting differences to people’s lives, not to mention the more rudimentary yet emotional benefits, such as calling friends and family.

But there’s a side of me that can’t help feeling the relentless advance of technology will take something away from the wonderful remoteness and simplicity of the local communities we visited.

At the start of my trek, I wondered how I was going to survive two weeks without mobile coverage. No texts, no Facebook, no keeping up with all the football gossip. I had used a mobile phone pretty much every day since I bought my first one — a Nokia 5110 — over 10 years ago, so it felt like it would be tough to survive more than two weeks without one.

Yet I somehow managed, and I almost enjoyed the seclusion. But my overriding reaction to the news was to picture the inhabitants of some of the tiny remote villages I trekked through using the advanced data services many of us take for granted. Sure, they might not be getting an iPhone4 anytime soon. But even in one of the most under-developed mobile markets in the world, music downloads, Internet surfing and mobile e-mail are no longer such far-fetched possibilities.