A new chapter to add thirty years on

In 1986, in a reflective moment, I worked out that a successful cellular mobile revolution needed to have four things in place:

  • A market need
  • Internationally standardised technology
  • Harmonised spectrum bands.
  • Supportive regulatory Framework

In 1987 I was sitting in a room in Bonn with top officials from Germany, France, Italy and the UK. We’d just successfully untangled the politics that had stalled the GSM initiative. There was an atmosphere of “job done”. But I sat there feeling uneasy that something more was needed. On the spur on the moment I tabled a fifth idea of getting all the mobile service providers to “jump together” in placing orders for their new digital mobile networks. This was to have global reverberations.

Two more generations of cellular mobile technology followed. 3G saw the disengagement of governments from the process. This decoupled the regulatory framework evolution from technology evolution. 4G saw the disengagement of spectrum managers. 4G had to be standardised for 44 different spectrum bands – a nightmare for chip set and  smartphone designers. What remained in place was the cohesiveness of the mobile operator community to follow harmonised standards.

5G was conceived by a few visionaries around 2012 with a simple idea of a natural 10-year spacing between generations of cellular mobile technology. 4G had been rolled out in 2009, so surely the world would be needing a 5th generation technology by 2019/20? It caught the attention of many governments, officials and the EU Commission. But a new generation of officials were now in place who had grown up in a philosophy that these matters were best left to the private sector and the market place. It was quite remarkable the number of politicians and officials that were looking back to GSM for inspiration on what to do to help 5G succeed.

The disengagement of Europe’s frequency spectrum managers from the evolution of cellular mobile technology nearly sunk 5G in Europe in 2015. Click on the link “the history of the 5G pioneer bands” to find out how this was turned around and was to change of direction of 5G.

What has remained detached from the 5G initiative in Europe has been the regulators (or governments)  creating the right framework within which to maximise the benefits of 5G. If this is not put right, the extent of high capacity 5G coverage will be disappointing.

In June 2020 I sat down to write an account of what had gone right and what had gone less well for 5G. An absolutely fascinating story emerged. The gist of the story is in the title: “5G – How do do everything wrong at the start and still emerge with a winner”. What came through as one of the three key success factor was the cohesiveness of the mobile network operators and their willingness to all “jump together”, a legacy from the GSM Memorandum of Understanding.