25 years in a flash

Sir David Brown, former chairman of Motorola, talks to E&T about the past, present and future of the cellular industry.

Sir David Brown worked for STC, ICL and Northern Telecom before joining Motorola in 1991 and rising to be its chairman. He's been deeply involved throughout the development of the UK's cellular networks, as everything from an equipment supplier to a member of Ofcom's spectrum advisory board.

"I'm 59 years old and have been a telecommunications engineer since I graduated, but the 25 years since the launch of cellular in the UK have flashed by.

"When I got into telecommunications, there were still queues outside telephone boxes and when you picked up the receiver you waited for a dial tone before you could dial. It just shows how available telecommunications services were back in the 1960s and 1970s.

"But our dream as young engineers was to get phones into the hands of everyone, and that one day phones would be untethered and everyone could have one, wherever they were."

Brown says cellular communications took off in the UK in the early 1980s because of the coincidence of four disruptive forces. The first of these was the Telecommunications Act of 1981, which paved the way for the privatisation of BT and, in 1982, the granting of two analogue cellular licences.

Four forces

"It was a combination of a disruptive public policy in the early days of the Thatcher government and disruptive technology, in terms of increasing silicon integration, which meant that handsets could have enough processing power to deal with the hand-off between cells, and that exchange switches could keep up."

Brown says the public-policy shift also led to the UK throwing its lot in with France, Germany and Italy to develop a second-generation digital cellular service to be called GSM, for Group Speciale Mobile, led from an office in Paris.

"It was a huge bet that the GSM people decided that the second generation of cellular would be digital, at the time an unproven technology."

The third disruptive force was the emergence of entrepreneurial new business models. Companies such as Racal were hugely innovative in the way they structured their businesses and their channels to market.

"Mobiles were being sold and fitted into cars from sheds and small garages, and some of those operations turned into outfits such as Carphone Warehouse," says Brown.

In the BT era, he says, the notion that you could get a phone in your home and it wouldn't be on a party [shared] line was so exciting that you wouldn't quibble about the fact that you had to rent it, and wait for six months for it to be installed, or even longer if you wanted a particular colour.

"With the introduction of cellular networks, suddenly you owned your phone and so took a keen interest in what it was."

The fourth disruption, according to Brown, was to cultural norms. When BT provided telephones on landlines at home, people thought carefully about when they would make a call, how far away the person they were calling was, and what it would cost per second. A lot of that changed with the introduction of cellular networks.

Handset breakthroughs

Brown attributes the roots of the cellular industry to efforts by the US government during the Second World War to improve battlefield communications. The resultant push to miniaturise high-frequency components led to the development of walkie-talkies.

"When the first seven-pound mobiles came through they were regarded as a breakthrough," says Brown.

Motorola's work on walkie-talkies put it in a good position to produce terminals for the analogue cellular network that the UK developed. But the first cellphones were actually car phones, because low initial sales volumes meant low integration, high power consumption and hence the need for access to a car battery. It didn't help that the good propagation of the 900MHz signals used in these systems meant that the basestations could be few and far between, so the mobile unit had to radiate a lot of power to reach them.

According to Brown, Motorola had the first true hand-portable handset, the DynaTAC, which could only be launched once the UK had enough base stations to ensure coverage. The handset began to sell well, which started Motorola up the manu--facturing learning curve. "When the DynaTAC was launched, that was the start of the race to produce sleeker phones."

Motorola was responsible for a number of other key phones, such as the first flip phone, which was designed to be small enough to put in a jacket pocket. It also made the RAZR, as advertised by David Beckham, which was the world's thinnest phone at the time. Brown says the company couldn't make them fast enough and estimates Motorola eventually sold hundreds of millions. He reckons that the global cellular industry must have made tens of billions of handets by now: "Is it any wonder that they are so small, light and reliable?"

The launch of cellular services created other business disruptions, such as the shift from in-house IC design to buying from expert external suppliers. It also laid the foundations for a UK success story: "Hardly a cellphone in the world doesn't have an ARM chip design in it. No wonder ARM is a FTSE 100 company."

Network quality was and still is a big issue for cellular operators. Back when the networks were being rolled out, operators ran cars called 'hedgehogs', stuffed full of multiple handsets and bristling with antennae. An engineer would be driven around in one of the hedgehogs, making multiple phone calls to check the hand-off between cells, call quality and stability.

"To bring it right up to date, these days people go to Vodafone and spend £15 a month for up to 3Gbyte of multiple megabit per second data and just don't think about it.

"Will there be a spectrum crunch? Probably not, because technology development is moving faster than demand."

Looking ahead, Brown believes that mobility and cellular will no longer be
synonymous, that people will use cellular networks even from fixed locations: "Mobility is now just part of what you expect from cellular."

He says the next step forward will be cognitive radio, where phones can negotiate with networks to get access to unused chunks of spectrum.

This will take two breakthroughs: the first in the regulation of the use of spectrum in a cognitive environment, and the second the development of 'soft' radio systems that can handle any band and any coding system. The introduction of fourth-generation LTE networks in 2010 and 2011 may pave the way for such systems.

"4G doesn't care whether it's working in time or frequency division multiplexing. It's sophisticated stuff that will demand more processing power.

"But this time it may be more evolutionary. 3G operators had to throw away their 2G basestations and 2G operators certainly had to throw away their 1G basestations. But there will be an upgrade path from 3G and it will soon be wrong to talk about such generations."

The social good

"In the early years, every engineer dreams of what could be and telecommunications engineers are no different," Brown reflects. "My dream was that everybody should be able to communicate whenever and wherever they wanted to, and that it should be affordable.

"Then you go through a phase when you concentrate on the here and now, but as the end of your career looms you dream again. And I think after 25 years of cellular services in the UK, if we have done it once we can do it again and do it faster.

"When there were two billion mobile phones in the world we used to talk about 'the next billion', which meant the people who couldn't afford any communications. Entrepreneurs like Mo Ibrahim bypassed landlines and took mobile phones to the developing world.

"People become engineers because they want to shape the world. Telecommunications engineers have shaped the global communications landscape and I think we're doing a good job of it."

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