By Mark Richards.

Mobile phone sales are in decline: we are no longer upgrading like we once did. In a bid to counter this, smartphone manufacturers will shortly be bringing out all sorts of innovations. But does it matter if you still cannot get a signal? Cue the race into space – but no-one knows how that will end…

I find myself in an unusual position. For the first time since I had a mobile phone, I am eligible for an upgrade – but I have decided to stick with my current phone.

I have an iPhone 7, which I have had for just over two years. Yes, I am eligible for an upgrade, but before Christmas, I took the decision that I would rather pay EE less money and stick with my current phone. And why not? It does everything I want. It accesses the internet, sends texts, takes reasonable photos and wakes me up in the morning. Very occasionally it even makes phone calls. Why on earth would I need to upgrade?

Mobile phone sales are in decline

And it seems that I am not alone. After years and years of seemingly inexorable growth, mobile phone sales are in decline. Witness the recent falls in Apple’s share price with CEO Tim Cook warning just before Christmas that the company’s recent wave of expensive phone launches had proved disappointing. For the first time in 20 years, Apple took the decision not to publish details of the exact numbers of phones, tablets and laptops it had sold – a move that led many analysts to speculate that the numbers were even more disappointing than had been thought.

But it is not just Apple: in 2018 global shipments of smartphones were down by 3%. While it is expected that the worldwide rollout of 5G will give smartphones a boost, predictions from IDC are that the market will only see growth in ‘the low single figures’ through to 2022.

How are handset manufacturers responding?

In the words of Techcrunch, they are ‘coming out swinging.’ After years of relatively minor changes and tweaks, we could be about to see some big changes in our mobiles which – the makers hope – will see us once again frantically checking when we are eligible to upgrade.

First and foremost we are going to have foldable phones. Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi and another Chinese manufacturer called Royole apparently all have foldable phones in development.

Google has promised to support these developments with upgrades to Android, wireless charging is also on the way, and Bluetooth headphones will mean that phones will shortly come without any ports.

But will all that drive growth? Critics have been left less than impressed by the new foldable phones, and even 5G is going to have problems living up to the hype. Wireless charging? Like millions of other people, I plug my phone in when I go to bed and unplug it in the morning.

It’s the signal, stupid

As Bill Clinton famously said in his successful 1992 Presidential campaign, “It’s the economy, stupid” – meaning that if the US economy was not right, nothing else mattered.

Is it not the same for phones? If the signal is not right, does it really matter if your phone can fold up and go in your pocket or operate with Bluetooth headphones?

For as long as I have had a mobile phone the road from Scarborough to Whitby across the North York Moors has had significant stretches where you simply cannot get a signal. I am sure many other parts of the UK are even worse – the anecdotal tales of broadband ‘connectivity’ in rural areas are legion. London – supposedly the engine that drives the rest of the UK – has some of the slowest broadband speeds in the country.

Space – definitely not the final frontier…

Far from it being a place where no man has boldly gone before, it appears that space will very shortly be extremely crowded – with satellites.

Ubiquitilink wants to come to the rescue of the mobile phone industry by using satellites to eliminate the Declining Smartphone Sales lead to Race into Spacewords ‘no signal’ from our language. The company modestly says it is focused on ‘providing connectivity to all 7.7 billion people, everywhere on Earth’, with boss Charles Miller saying, “If you’re focused on bridging the digital divide … you have to build a thousand satellites.”

But the really big push is coming from Elon Musk’s company Space X: if you have not yet heard of Starlink, you will do. Starlink is a satellite ‘constellation’ development, proposed by Space X. Ultimately the company’s plan is to surround the Earth with a network of 12,000 satellites which will give blanket internet coverage across the planet. Advocates say that the plan will give economic opportunities to developing countries and rural areas that they are currently missing out on due to poor coverage.

In March last year, the US Federal Communications Commission gave initial approval for the company’s first 4,400 satellites. The company’s goal is to deploy 1,600 satellites at first, with an estimate of six years for the full network to be operational.

We also need to look out for orbiting BEEs… In the US a company called Swarm Technologies has just raised $25m to put 1,500 Space BEEs (that is BEE as in Basic Electronic Element) into orbit, which will apparently improve connectivity for the ‘internet of things.’

It goes without saying that while all this is happening in the US there are similar plans afoot in China, which is currently planning a network of 156 satellites to improve broadband connectivity across the country. There are even plans to launch an artificial moon into orbit by 2020 to light up the city of Chengdu in the south-western province of Sichuan, with claims that the ‘moon’ will be bright enough to entirely replace street lights.

Very clearly, what was once science fiction is rapidly becoming science fact. But in the race to give me a mobile signal on the North York Moors, do we risk going too far? We have written previously about security concerns regarding Huawei’s equipment being used in 5G networks: what about the equipment being used in satellites?

Supposing the satellites orbiting the Earth were hacked? Supposing China suddenly controlled not just your mobile phone network but your ‘internet of things?’ It is an apocalyptic, end of the world scenario. And we will take a closer look at that cheerful prospect on Friday…