Belgium, you sap my strength

Antwerp Central Station
Antwerp - beautiful city; shame about the mobile coverage

Before anyone gets too irate, I have nothing against Belgium itself. But on trips to the continent I have noticed that it’s not just their roads that could do with patching up in places. I have problems with their mobile networks – and with Mobistar in particular.

I use Orange for my mobile, largely down to inertia, and the availability of their Travel Data Daily bundle (which has, miraculously, been correctly billed on my recent trips).

I normally leave my phone set to automatic when travelling, so it should just switch to a local network, and the preferred one of those is set by your home operator. It would appear that the preferred operator for Orange users must be Mobistar, as that’s what my phone switches to every time I get to Belgium.

It’s a horrible experience; if travelling by Eurostar, the problems start around Lille, and continue until I leave Belgium, either returning home or moving on to somewhere else – much as when driving through Belgium, you know you’ve reached a German motorway because there’s a small bump and a sudden quietening of the road noise. (And when travelling in Germany, incidentally, my mobile data experience is far, far better than at home.)

Mobistar’s data coverage – at least as experienced on my Nokia E72 – is beyond execrable. For large parts of the trip – and being on a Eurostar, you’re not exactly breaking a pioneering route through uninhabited areas – there’s either no service, or no data service, with the connection arrows on the phone cross out.

In fact, it’s slightly worse than that, because it comes and goes with such annoying frequency that the phone doesn’t give up in disgust and try another network. It bravely struggles to maintain a connection, switching between GPRS, EDGE and 3G, or no signal.

You can sometimes start looking at a web site, or reading your email, but it’s pot luck as to whether or not the connection will still be there when you hit send, or try to follow another link.

And the net result of all this is that, while my phone can normally manage a couple of days on a full battery, if I’m travelling on a train through Belgium, and attempting to use mobile data, the battery will be flat by lunchtime.

Aside from the niggles about Orange and Mobistar this throws up, it’s also an interesting point about battery life, and one of the reasons you’re always going to have to find out for yourself how long something really lasts; intermittent coverage hammers the battery (a day popping in and out of the London Underground can have a similar, if less marked, effect).

The ‘Belgium effect’ is probably the worst I’ve come across, sapping between two thirds and three quarters of my phone’s power, but it’s a handy reminder that sometimes, the best way to extend the battery life of our phones is to turn them off, or choose another network.

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