The French and German governments invited their national industries to put forward proposals for their collaborative field trials. The governments were to pay 100% of the R&D (Research and Development) costs. Four consortia were selected. The first was a consortium of industrial giants comprising SEL of Germany and Alcatel of France. They were to trial the wide band TDMA solution based on the SEL work. The second was the German arm of Philips who had some novel ideas for different technologies in the two different directions of transmission. There would be a wide band TDMA system from the base station to mobile radio. In the other direction of transmission they proposed a much simpler system where each voice call had its own radio channel. A third included Bosch of Germany looking at a simple narrow band TDMA solution. The fourth was a small French company looking at a narrow band TDMA solution with an additional idea of making the frequency channels hop around all the time to avoid interference.
There was a nice symmetry of two wide band and two narrow band TDMA solutions. The French PTT managed two of the contracts and the German PTT managed the other two. The German PTT took care that it was the French who managed the SEL led consortia contract. Just a few days before the French PTT let the contract they discovered that one of the industrial companies in the SEL led consortia had sub-contracted some work to an Italian Company. They quickly sent a request to the Italian Government to help contribute to the cost. The Italian Government refused. It was so late in the day that France had no choice but to proceed. They were far from happy at the thought of subsidising Italian industry.
Meanwhile in the UK there was a total preoccupation by the two mobile operators with rolling out the UK analogue cellular radio networks. The haste with which the UK government had selected the TACS analogue standard, based as it was on an established US technology (AMPS) and the speed with which licensing awards were made gave UK manufacturing industry absolutely no chance to develop any hardware. The two UK networks were therefore being built, at that stage, almost entirely on imported equipment. UK industry were out of the game of supplying first generation cellular networks, even before the game had started.
Some argued that the start of the new 900 MHz analogue cellular radio services could have been delayed a year or 18 months to give our manufacturing industry a chance to develop the necessary equipment. But the UK Conservative Government applied a consistent set of priorities to all their decisions. Top priority was the consumer interest, second was the financial services sector (there appeared money to be made from mobile radio), third was the other service industries (in this case the mobile network operators and service providers) and absolutely bottom of the heap was the UK manufacturing industry. (Note: It may be going too far to say that the French and German Governments order of priorities was the complete inverse in 1984 but certainly a good case can be made that their manufacturing sectors have been given a consistently higher priority than that of the UK…and the outcome is clear to see today).
Against this unpromising political backdrop I had not given up trying to find a way in for UK manufacturers for the GSM opportunity. In early 1985 I received a number of invitations to visit research laboratories in the UK. During a visit to British Telecom Research Laboratories I saw some work they were doing on digital voice coding being funded by BT mobile. This is one of the key components for digital cellular radio. It converts the human voice patterns into a highly efficient stream of computer numbers (1s and 0s). It was interesting but not particularly heavily resourced. I visited Racal Research and saw a relatively modest digital radio activity. During a visit to the Marconi research laboratories I was sworn to secrecy, as they were about to reveal work they were doing on digital voice coding. I held my breath as I was ushered into the laboratory expecting great things in what had once been the UK’s radio research powerhouse …..what I saw was a total anticlimax. It was a solitary printed circuit board with the beginnings of a voice coder. They were about two years behind the work in British Telecom’s Labs.
Compared to the fully funded programme announced by the French and German Governments the UK’s total effort was paltry. The only chance was to get the UK companies to pool their efforts.
The next day I telephoned David Tennet the Technical Director of Marconi. I found him a live wire and very clear thinking. I put it to him that adding all the efforts of all the UK companies amounted to pea nuts relative to the effort the French and Germans now were mounting. Even the Scandinavian countries had a much better organised effort. Why not a joint UK effort? His reaction was positive and enthusiastic. It was the green light to sound out the other companies.
Before long I had British Telecom, Racal, Marconi, STC and Plessey around the table. A good spirit existed. Everyone knew that the sum total of 5 peanuts was only 5 peanuts. Across the water the effort looked really impressive. Ted Beddoes, who by that time was doing a short secondment in the DTI working for me, found out what one of the consortia was being paid by the French and German governments. Scaling it up to all consortia, (which wasn’t an accurate thing to do), produced a grand total of £30 million pounds. (Later the figure was revealed to be 18 mECU).” We need to do more ” said a BT engineer at one meeting. Everyone nodded.
My DTI colleague John Avery had a budget for supporting industrial R&D. He was willing to support a small collaborative project on a 50:50 basis with industry.
The show was on the road. British Telecom, Racal, Marconi and Plessey wanted in. STC fell by the wayside. Kenneth Corfield had just left STC after the company had incurred some financial losses. The City of London, whose short-termism has probably inflicted more damage on the UK manufacturing base than occurred during the entire Second World War, put into STC a new management team tasked with swinging the axe on any new expenditure and a lot more besides. As usual it was long term R&D that got tossed over the side of the ship. The STC engineers were disappointed. I regretted this in view of the very fine research record of their Labs at Harlow in Essex.
The first problem was how the project could be conveniently broken into three pieces when there was four companies. Plessey came to my rescue without prompting. They didn’t think any practical work should start until a technical audit had been carried out on the different proposals being trialled by the French and the Germans. They angled for a position to lead this audit. The other three companies reasoned that the broad band systems were so complicated that there was no chance of building a working system in the time available. They were game for going straight for a narrow band TDMA system.
Plessey got the study they were pressing for. They were to analyze the four French/German systems against the UK’s five criteria. It was called “the top-down” study. The practical work was then carved out amongst the other three on an amicable basis and the UK digital cellular “Test Bed” was born.
British Telecom had the voice coder work. They were clearly in the lead for this component. Marconi happened to be a company with a long tradition as a supplier of radio transmitters, so they got the transmitters/receivers. Racal’s digital expertise had impressed me and they were given the TDMA bit. John Avery found a few hundred thousand pounds and with the Minister Geoffrey Pattie’s endorsement we were away.
A few hundred thousand pounds may seem paltry but it is amazing what can be done by a very small team, very focussed, no frills, no red tape and only a very short time.
It wasn’t long before the engineers from the three companies gelled into a close knit team working all hours. The activities were supervised by a working group that brought together the UK preparations for GSM and an industrial R&D activity tracking the emerging standard. It proved an effective formula. Whilst the UK was still only at the fringes of events this collaborative effort enabled the UK to make a much stronger input to the standardisation effort. That said the sheer size of the Franco-German R&D effort gave substance and credibility to the digital technology and provided the main engine for the GSM initiative over this phase.