The next GSM meeting where sparks were to fly was in Berlin in September 1985. It was a significant meeting.
The French and German officials had met with the Italian officials and aligned their positions before the meeting.
The first argument was on the setting up of the permanent task team of experts. The French and Germans wanted this immediately. My further efforts at delay came to nought. It was agreed to set up the team. No sooner had this been agreed when the French head of delegation Philippe Dupuis gave a long speech about this incredible French engineer with quite stunning qualifications who might just be persuaded to lead the team. There is an unwritten rule in international bodies that it is not wise to have too many elected officials from the same country. The France PTT already controlled two of the four working parties in the GSM, including the vital one dealing with the radio interface. Without a second thought I heard myself telling the meeting that we had an equally good candidate but I wasn’t in a position to give his name. The fact that I couldn’t give his name was an understatement. Prior to Philippe Dupuis speaking, the thought had never crossed my mind. It left me with the not insignificant problem of finding a suitable candidate.
Another battle was the extent to which this task team would take over the main body of the specification work from the Working Parties (which only met from time to time) or essentially be a supporting resource for these existing Working Parties. Sweden and the UK favoured the first approach and the French and Germans favoured the second approach. The second approach won the day.
The next day the GSM were trying to set down the general policy requirements of a pan European digital cellular radio system. I was insisted that the new system had to accommodate competitive operators. This pushed up the temperature in a room full of monopoly mobile network operators. This love of network competition by the British Government was a disease that might spread. The biggest panic attack came from the GSM delegate from the Danish telephone administration. The Danish politicians were in process of reviewing their telecommunications monopoly. If GSM put out a statement that the new European cellular radio system would accommodate competitive operators – someone in the Danish Parliament might ask whom the other mobile operator in Denmark was going to be. The UK was not going to export this heresy called competition. He adamantly refused to accept any reference to competitive operators. We glowered at each other.
There was no mileage being at odds with the Danes. We were really good allies on another battle in GSM. This was to get hand portables as an essential feature of the new GSM system.
It may seem incredible now. But there was a solid body of European technical and commercial opinion in 1985 that saw cellular radio only as phones in cars. There were sound economic reasons for this. It cost a lot of money to build radio base stations and for decades the rule was to find a high site somewhere, build a tall mast and blast out power as far as the eye could see. The only problem was that for a two way telephone conversation power had to be blasted back the other way and for the mobile the only source of power was a battery – in fact a car battery. A car also allowed a decent aerial to be mounted on top of the car bonnet to assist in getting enough signal back to the base station. This allowed relatively low investments in mobile networks that in turn meant that a relatively low number of customers made the proposition viable. It was a comfortable low risk place to be for the mobile radio operators.
Motorola did the pioneering work to make a viable truly portable mobile phone – the iconic brick emerged. It was heavy, expensive and had a short battery life. If you happened to move around a relatively small area near a base station (in City centres) it was possible to make telephone calls but it was only too easy to move out of range and no calls were possible – which was over most of a national service area. The mobile networks were optimised for the car phone and the mobile hand portable just took pot luck as to whether they worked or not. That was not to say they were not marketed enthusiastically and both UK mobile radio operators were shipping them out of the door at £3000 a piece as fast as they could lay their hands on them.
The DTI gave an R&D grant to a small UK company called Technophone to develop the world’s first “pocket” analogue mobile phone, the PC 105. It was sold under the brand name Excell. I supervised the R&D contract for the DTI and forced myself to carry an early model (the PC 105) to and from work.
Figure 5 – Advertisement in 1986 for the world’s smallest mobile phone
It had its limitations. Whilst the bottom of the phone certainly fitted into my shirt pocket, the top stuck right out. So it travelled in my brief case. The short battery life forced a discipline to plug it into a battery charger at each end of my commute. Ted Beddoes made a joke that the success of the personal mobile phone would need a change of British cultural whereby one always plugged the mobile into it charger when arriving home – before kissing the wife. The first model also had a tendency to drop calls – reflecting just how far the technology was being stretched to get its size down.
But when I did not have it with me I was surprised to find that I missed it. It was like going back to black and white TV after watching colour TV. It was a clear sign to me that it was a technology that would stick and not a passing fad. It was my conversion that the hand portable was the key to any future mobile radio system. We needed a GSM network designed to make the hand portable mobile much more viable.
Only my Danish colleague Marius Jacobsen was giving me any active support on this in the GSM meeting.
It was time to find a compromise on the competition issue. In the lunch break I offered a neutral text which referred to the need for the new GSM system to accommodate “geographically co-located operators”. I pointed out that this could be interpreted in Denmark as the overlap at the border with Sweden and in the UK as competitive operators. He wrote the words down and started to play around with them. It was a deal.
Others in the main meeting went along with the compromise; although I got a lecture from the Klaus Spindler from Germany that the UK couldn’t expect the rest of Europe to pay any extra cost for a system to accommodate more than one mobile operator. This was a generous offer coming from the German PTT who, at the time, were one of the main political advocates in Europe of the virtues of a monopoly telecommunications service. (Note: some GSM colleagues believe the discussion on co-located operators took place at the Paris meeting of GSM).
The only moment of respite during the week was a short presentation by Phil Porter and Pete Arnold from a USA R&D establishment called Bellcore (the R&D centre for the US regional Bell telephone companies). They had come to Europe to tell the GSM about their research work on digital mobile radio. They slammed the idea of a network that accommodated both car radios and hand portables. Their vision was of a network based entirely of hand portables. They predicted that this would eventually replace the fixed wire line telephone. Most of the European engineers listened politely. They were preoccupied with a car telephone service. They still hadn’t got it. Even more alien was the idea of competition with the fixed wire line telephone.
For my part I carefully noted these interesting ideas. One day their time would come. As it happened not long after Lord Young arrived at the DTI.
If the meeting had been tough thus far worse was to come. I was still being given the run-around on the paper on the five commercial criteria. It hadn’t even been discussed. The meeting was already about half way through. I raised the matter in one of the main GSM sessions pointing out the problem of GSM trying to select between systems with no agreed criteria. Surely agreeing the criteria was best done at the beginning before some of the strengths and weaknesses of the particular systems became apparent?
The French official Philippe Dupuis didn’t think this was timely. The German official thought that the working party under the French chairmanship was best qualified to deal with the matter “in their own way”. Right on cue Renzo Failli from Italy asked for the floor. He did a very good act of getting highly irritated or perhaps he was. “How could the UK waste so much time of so many delegates with its interventions on a paper of no interest” he demanded, “The GSM had far too many important things to do. He said that Italy did not even want to consider the UK paper”. The UK was getting beaten up by the gang from the tri-partite digital cellular radio agreement.
This last statement from Renzo Failli went too far in terms of CEPT protocol where each country at least had the right for its contributions to be considered. I knew it was my opportunity. I whispered to Ted Beddoes not to get alarmed but it was time for me to lose my temper. As Renzo Failli finished I banged the table and exploded into a rage which sent shock waves around the room. “We had formally tabled a contribution. Whilst we had no right to expect people to agree with it, we did at least have a right for it to be considered”.
Pitching the argument on the right for consideration rather than on the content gave me the moral high ground. The Chairman Thomas Haug knew he had to make space for a proper discussion. The five criteria were at last in play. During the GSM discussion a sixth criteria was added. This was the ability of the system to support data services (eg text messaging). It was helpful to digital technology case. Our operators didn’t object so the UK accepted it.
Towards the end of that GSM meeting I took a lunchtime stroll around the block with Renzo Failli.
Figure 6 – Renzo Failli, led in GSM for the Italian operating company SIP
Fences needed to be mended. He asked me why the UK was so hostile to the digital technology. I explained that in the competitive UK environment any new technology had to sell itself. We couldn’t impose something just because it was called “digital”. It had to have some virtues over our current analogue cellular radio standard TACS.
He probably did not comprehend the dynamics of a competitive market. In Italy mobile competition did not exist. He stressed that the UK had to give up the idea of pushing TACS as the European standard. The main virtue of the digital technology was simple that it didn’t yet exist. It was industrially and politically “neutral”.
The UK did not have any active plans to push our TACS standard in GSM but it was one of the de facto options if there was no agreement on a common digital technology. But his argument on “a neutral technology” in terms of practical European politics rang true and was good advice.
I staggered home from the Berlin GSM meeting totally exhausted. It had been an awful meeting.
There was no respite from the gloom when, a few days later, there was a conference in London on global telecommunications developments. A very senior British Telecom executive gave a speech that was well reported in the press. He firmly predicted that a pan European digital cellular radio system would not happen this side of the year 2000. Nobody dissented.
It was a very low point for me. It all looked pretty hopeless from a UK perspective. Then a small green shoot appeared…
A few weeks later there was a meeting in Brussels to discuss EU policy for mobile services. The six criteria were duly pushed from the UK delegation. In these specialist meetings the local UK Representatives (under the Foreign Office) usually just nipped in, said hallo and rushed off to one of the dozens of other meetings taking place. The UK delegation was Greg Faulkner, a diplomat on loan from the Foreign Office, who headed up our international telecommunications policy branch at the DTI and myself.
The objective of the European Commission with this particular series of meetings was a very low-keyed report to try to bring views of Member States closer. But national officials were always on their guard for what went in them in case they were used by the EU Commission later to extend the power and reach of the EU – a drive that seemed to be in their DNA. It therefore came as a complete surprise when the French delegate asked for the floor and fully supported the six criteria we had put forward for selecting the GSM technology.
Figure 7 – Philippe Dupuis, France’s leading mobile radio strategist
It was Philippe Dupuis and he even referred to it as “our” six criteria. I was bowled over. With such influential support the first peg of the strategy was firmly in the ground.