When big revolutions occur there can be unintended consequences. The first of these emerged around 1989. Somebody in Oftel, who wore a hearing aid, was playing around with a new digital cordless telephone called CT2 and noticed a buzzing in his hearing aid when the cordless phone came too close to his ear. He reported this to the Radiocommunications Division who were not quite sure what to do and brought it to my attention. I asked British Telecom Research Laboratories to do some tests for us. While they were about it they were also asked (as an after thought) to look to see if the same effect occurred with GSM mobile phones as they tended to work at power levels 10 times higher than cordless phones.

They sat a deaf person with a hearing aid in a special room that was deadened to external radio waves and the digital phones to be tested were each brought forward little by little. The cordless phones certainly did interfere with hearing aids but only when they were very very close to the ear. But the real horror story emerging was that the GSM phones cause massive amounts of audio interference at significant distances away – in fact the BT research Lab staff member doing the testing had to pull the hearing aid out of his ear such was the pain from the audio interference.

At first there was complete bafflement. How could a GSM signal at 900 MHz break through a purely audio frequency device like a hearing aid? Then the BT engineers worked out what was happening. It was the Time Division Multiple Access feature. This arranged a telephone call from any mobile as a burst of data and then a long silence, which was used by other mobile users to send their bursts of data. This pattern of a signal and silence just happened to be at a repetition rate that fell into the audio range of human hearing when it passed through any electronic device that acted as a detector. In technical terms a GSM signal was being amplitude modulated. All the geniuses around Europe and for that matter the rest of the world and nobody had spotted this.

Equally amazing was that there were dozens of GSM breadboard lash-ups working around European laboratories (for several years) and nobody had noticed this GSM signal breaking through into audio devices. At the DTI we had parked our GSM test bed outside the DTI building and had loudspeakers in the conference room but nobody heard any audio breakthrough. Yet BTRL had done carefully controlled experiments not only with hearing aids but other audio devices and it was a bit like bursts from a machine gun breaking through.

We had a problem. The GSM bandwagon was already rolling. Chips were coming out of semiconductor manufacturers and GSM networks had already been ordered. A colleague from the Radiocommunications Division proposed that we would have to ban GSM mobile phones in the UK market and stay with the analogue mobile radio technology. That was not something the UK could do unilaterally.

A new technology that was going to hit all the deaf people in the UK had all the alarm bells ringing in my mind in terms of political consequences. We could not sit on this and had to get a note up to Ministers but saying what…?

The next step was to call in officials from the Department of Health and see what their views were. I was expecting the worst from them…but still stumped on what we could do about it. The only solution would be a complete change in the design of the technology in the direction of mobile to base stations. But the industrial consequences of this would be enormous. It did not look do-able.

The meeting with Department of Health Officials arrived and we set out the findings of the BTRL research. Their response took us by surprise. It was one of complete indifference. The officials said that deaf people had interference to their hearing aids from all manner of electrical devices for example neon signs – he did not think that one more source of interference would matter one way or the other. I was shocked in the sense that I had expected them to aggressively defend their constituents and demand what we were going to do about it.

I put up a low-keyed note to Ministers and proposed we did more tests on various hearing aids.

Here the story improved markedly in that some hearing aids were absolutely immune to the audio breakthrough from GSM mobiles, some were bad and some very bad indeed. It all depended upon the design of the hearing aid. The issue quietly wound its way up to the European level and the legal position was that it was down to hearing aid manufacturers to improve the immunity of their hearing aids to the GSM interference.

The European standards body responsible for defining these immunity standards for hearing aids were very miffed. So were the European hearing aid suppliers.


Figure 45 – GSM was an unwelcome surprise to hearing aid suppliers

It turned out that the hearing aids that had this total immunity to GSM interference came from South Korea and the very badly designed ones came from some European suppliers. But we reckoned it would take 4-5 years before GSM mobile phones had penetrated the market in such numbers that deaf people had significant encounters with people using their GSM mobile phones. That would be ample time for better European designs of hearing aids to come onto the market and diffuse out into the population of the hearing impaired.

We were lucky that a chance encounter of a digital cordless phone with a deaf official brought the problem to our attention very early on and this unintended consequence of the GSM technology was handled with almost no fuss. The world seems to have muddled through with interference with other audio systems . There can be few people that have not, at some time, been in a room when a GSM phone has broken into the audiovisual equipment in a meeting room. But nobody seems to have had the technical curiosity to ask why. And the answer would have been to get the supplier of their audiovisual equipment back to properly suppress their badly designed audiovisual system.

Another unintended consequence of GSM was to significantly increase public unease on the potential health hazards of holding a mobile phone close to the head. Certainly public concern with the safety of using portable mobile phones came with the analogue cellular radio networks. It was fuelled by some reports from the Soviet Union suggesting much lower power limits than Western Scientists could find the scientific evidence for. I recall reading the information leaflet that accompanied the Motorola “brick” that their lawyers had carefully drafted to ensure that, should there ever be a problem, the user had been warned – so don’t come suing Motorola. But the industry had handled this public unease with care. GSM itself appointed an expert to scan all the scientific papers but the search was inconclusive. In addition public health scares usually materialise only with something the mass of the population thinks may affect them and the number of people using the brick mobile phones costing £2000 each was still very small.

Three things ratcheted up the public unease. The first was a bit of black propaganda against TDMA technology coming out of the USA that somehow bursts of radio waves might be more harmful that a continuous stream of radio waves. The second was the bringing into use of the 1800 MHz bands that at an early time had tended to be called microwaves by some parts of the industry. That in turn got linked across to microwave ovens where a health scare of leaky microwave ovens had caused sales of these ovens to plummet. The third was that the market for hand portable mobile phones (as opposed to car phones) was starting to grow rapidly.

This had been handled well in my “Phones on the Move” Consultation document and I’d gone the extra mile to satisfy myself that the industry had the means to respond to any future lowering of the RF power safety limits on mobile phones.

All this was to prove insufficient to ward off the dreaded “health scare”.

The source of the storm started in an innocent proposal from one of the universities for an R&D project to accurately measure the RF power from a mobile phone. The reason for this is that the “human head” is what is called “a dielectric” in electrical terms and this modifies the behaviour of a nearby mobile phone aerial. So simply testing a mobile phone on a production line was not giving a really accurate measurement of how the mobile radio behaved with a human head slapped against it. I supported the project since I knew that the internal aerials, now becoming commonplace with mobile phones, did not have easy to predict characteristics which way radio waves would be directed.

This was all very technical and boring research hackwork. The project was included in a long list of research projects made public. The technical press picked this up and commented that the DTI must be concerned about the health effects of mobile phones to be even studying the matter – and completely missed the point that we were not studying the health effects – only how to accurately measure RF power as close range. The Daily Telegraph then picked up the same spin on the story but in a slightly exaggerated form.

Then a radio journalist decided to interview one of the University professors concerned in radio research. The journalist was a very pretty young lady (or so I was told). The professor was asked one of those tutorial “please tell me how a radio wave could possibly cause cancer?” type of questions. The Professor evidently never stopped to put his reply into a context of extremely high power radio waves or very low power radio waves or if he did it was not listened to. What was picked up by other sections of the press was that some professor had said that mobile phones could cause cancer – which is not what he said.

By this time the DTI press office were being bombarded with press enquiries. We had to get out a press release. Now! But we could not get hold of the expert from the National Radiological Protection Board. He was off site at a meeting (and no mobile phone). It was neither right nor credible for the DTI to give a medial view.

We missed the window and the story turned into a full-blown media driven health scare. I watched the story spin completely out of control getting ever more depressed. Finally the London Evening Standard hit the absolute pits – “cellular radios fry your brains” cried the headlines. The only crumb of comfort I could draw was that I could not imagine the story getting any worse. The other crumb was that the story had nowhere to run since we were not hiding anything under the carpet. Eventually we got NRPB to issue a press release. Nobody was listening.

As with most health scares the public memory is very short. The industry has played its part in funding a lot of research into seeing if there are any adverse health effects. Meanwhile the sheer convenience of the mobile phone has seen it become a mass consumer item and it is doubtful if many people can even recall the headline of mobile phones “frying their brains”.

Scientific progress has always run on the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise. When Ministers say that something new is “safe” this is slightly disingenuous since the accurate position is that no evidence (has yet) been found to prove it to be harmful. Under these circumstances the issue for me has always been that consumers should have the choice. Those consumers wanting to exercise prudence needed to have the option of hands free kits or other means of putting distance between the mobile phone and the body.

I have also been confident that, if any adverse health effect is ever proved, then it will be due to the power level of the mobile phone transmitter being too high. My reasoning for this conjecture is that the world has been bombarded with very low levels of radio waves since the beginning of time and the human race has thrived – so the power level of the radio waves can only be the principal issue. Here the trend of mobile networks has been all been in the right direction.

The enormous increase in the number of base stations (from 1000 covering the UK in the 1980’s to over 12,000 today) has dragged down the mobile phone power levels by a similar order of magnitude. This is one of the wonderful features of the GSM technology – the mobile phone RF power level is automatically wound down the nearer the user is to a base station. Thus if mobile phones were “safe” in 1991 then, on average, they are more than 10 times safer in 2009.

A third unintended consequence of GSM related to patents or more broadly “intellectual property rights”.

When I was Chairman of the ETSI Technical Assembly a huge row broke out on Intellectual Property Rights and GSM had ignited it. It pitched most European suppliers and mobile operators on one side and three large US multinationals on the other. It was a clash of culture between the old European ways of doing things, where patents in telecommunications standards were open to all and either free of charge or a very modest royalty was charged (eg 2% of the selling price) – to a new world order where Intellectual Property Rights were to be a weapon to be used by suppliers to leverage market advantage.

The three US companies were DEC, IBM and Motorola and they led the charge in ETSI towards this new world order.

ETSI was not an IT standards body so I did not have a lot of sympathy with the IT companies trying to import their business models into a public network environment. But I was concerned about Motorola, as they were a leading player in our industry. I therefore flew to Chicago to meet Chris Galvin the CEO of Motorola to explain the majority position in ETSI.

In turn he explained to me that Motorola were spending huge amounts of speculative R&D on technology that would take 10 years or more to get to market. For this reason they needed to be aggressive over protecting their IPR and he quoted their Iridium Mobile Satellite venture as the prime example.

Motorola and the US IT companies won the battle in ETSI and some pretty weak IPR rules were put in place.

The IPR row was to have far reaching consequences for the industry. It triggered a complete change of behaviour by European manufacturers towards Intellectual Property Rights. By the time 3G technology arrived in the market the cumulative royalty levels being imposed on a 3G mobile had became as high as a staggering 30% of the ex-factory cost of the phone and billion $ law suits had become a feature of the industry.

There is a certain irony in Chris Galvin using Iridium as the reason for taking a tough line on Intellectual Property Rights in GSM in that Iridium and indeed a number of other mobile satellite businesses proved a severe commercial disappointment – largely as a result of GSM.

When these satellite projects were conceived analogue cellular radio networks covered population centres and not a lot beyond. There were millions of square miles of land that looked likely to never be covered. Even in a well-populated continent like Europe around two thirds of the land area had no mobile coverage and large parts of Asia and Africa had no mobile coverage at all. The business model of these mobile satellite systems was to cover all these more remote regions and aggregate enough traffic to make the investments pay.

But the coverage of GSM networks exceeded all expectations in three respects. First, in places like Europe, the combination of good profits and strong competition saw mobile operators push their GSM coverage not only to where people lived but more remote areas where they took their leisure. Second, GSM networks swept through all the developing countries in Africa and Asia. Third it all happened relatively quickly. The money on these satellite systems was committed before these satellite operators came to realise that they were about to lose a huge slice of their target customer base to GSM networks.

Figure 46 – Iridium mobile phone

At the end of March, 1999, the $5 billion satellite system Iridium had 10,294 subscribers, far short of the 500,000 needed to reach break-even. At midnight on March 17, 2000, Iridium shut off service to their 55,000 customers and the network assets sold for $25 million by the end of the same year – about the same time as GSM was just passing its 200 millionth customers.

The overall impact of GSM was phenomenal. It not only overtook the analogue mobile radio networks but swept them relatively quickly into the dustbin of history, crushed telepoint and paging networks, left the mobile technology standards of the US and Japanese in a very poor second and third place and knocked the stuffing out of mobile satellite networks and send many of them crashing back down to earth. Yet all the pioneers set out to do was to have at least one compatible mobile technology rolled out across Europe to create a pan European digital cellular radio service!

Perhaps the biggest unintended consequence of all is for GSM to have become the engine driving the ubiquity and scale economies of the mobile phone to the extent of putting the mobile phone in the hands of over 6 billions people – many of whom live in the poorest countries on the planet.