The original engineering team, regrouped for Vodafone's 30th anniversary event

Ringing the changes: 30 years of mobiles with Vodafone UK

On 1 January 1985, comedian Ernie Wise stood in the middle of Trafalgar Square in London and telephoned a building in Newbury High Street. Occupying the ground floor of that building was a curry house, but Wise was not ordering a chicken vindaloo. Rather, he was helping to break new ground in communications.

Wise, incongruously dressed like a character from a Dickens novel, was calling an old friend, Gerry Whent, the chief executive of Vodafone. Back in 1985, Vodafone was just a small start-up company that rented the offices above the Indian restaurant. Wise, one half of legendary comic duo Morecambe and Wise, had just made the UK’s first-ever public call on a mobile phone.

The Vodafone network had just gone live. Twelve years after Motorola launched their mobile phones in the USA, Britain had its own mobile network. However, both the network and the phone hardware which the company's first customers used bore little resemblance to those we use today. Neither did the cost.

In 1985, a Vodafone handset cost between £1,500 and £2,000. Based on inflation, this is equivalent to £4,211-£,5615 today. Some people bought car phones costing as much as £4,500 - over £12,000 in today’s money.

Some of these handheld phones weighed as much as a miniature Dachshund dog. Car phones came with a case that weighed twice as much again. Users also needed an antennae to get a reception. If you were lucky enough to get a phone that didn’t need plugging into the car, to make it work the handheld phone batteries gave you only twenty to thirty minutes of call time before they needed recharging. Despite all this, the mobile phone soon became a must-have yuppie gadget.

In 1985, Vodafone was part of the now-defunct Racal Electronics. Two years earlier Racal Vodafone, as it was called then, had won the first British public mobile license. In September 1984, the company started selling phones. By the time the network went live, they had four hundred customers. The first, a London stockbroker called Mungo Park, could now call the stock exchange in the USA on the way home, after his UK office had closed for the night.

I hear you, telephone thing

Vodafone kick-started the UK’s mobile phone revolution. In the UK today there are more mobile phone contracts than there are people. Ofcom says that Brits spend more time on mobiles than on landlines (more than 132 million mobile phone calls a day, according to Vodafone statistics) and estimates that 1,700 unwanted phones are thrown away every hour.

Initially, Vodafone only had five employees, although Mike Pinches, the company’s first technical director, was confident enough to tell the landlord that he would soon need enough space for two hundred and fifty. “The man looked at us wryly, as if to say. ‘Oh yeah? Really?’”, Pinches recalls.

Pinches was responsible for recruiting the engineering team who designed the first Vodafone network and switching systems and chose the base station locations. He was in charge of the TACS technology, the first-generation analogue system that the early mobile networks used. He also worked with Racal Vodafone and their competitor Cellnet to work out how the networks would connect to the BT landline network.

Pinches explains that the new company’s first challenge was to arrange a common standard with BT so mobile phones could be used on either network. “We fairly quickly concluded that the best way was to base it on the US amps, first-generation airborne technology with as little modification as possible for the UK market,” he says.

Pinches adds that this meant changing it from 800MGhz to 900 MGhz and to change from 30kHz channel spacing down to 25kHz to meet the European standard.

At that time, the biggest worry for the Vodafone team was in fact whether the damned thing would actually work. Mike Pinches explains that when Prince Phillip heard about the new phones, he wanted one for his carriage. “We drove up to Buckingham Palace the day before to test the network, but when some of the palace security saw us, they came over and asked – very forcefully – if we could explain what we were doing,” he says. “We managed to convince them we were selling a phone to the Prince, it turned out the network was OK and the Prince’s phone worked just fine.”

The first Vodafone network had just five base stations, all in London. The network only worked inside the M25, so it was down to John Dellow, Vodafone’s first operations director, to secure another 95 sites for Vodafone to erect their mobile masts around the country by September. “I was thrown in at the deep end, negotiating with landlords and property owners,” he says. “There was a lot of resistance in the early days. We wanted a standard mast which was 30 metres with three big antennas on the top. Many local authorities didn’t want to give us planning permission.”

Nigel Linge, Professor of Telecommunications at Salford University, says that getting access to locations was always going to be a challenge. “It’s ironic that many of those who opposed the mobile masts going up in their areas now complain that they haven’t got local coverage,” he says.

Hanging on the telephone

Military and police forces have used radio communications since the early 20th century. Radio technology was less than efficient, though: only one person could speak at a time, for example. Over! In the 1970s, BT duplex phones did enable two-way conversation, but if you walked too far from a base station the call would cut out. With a cell phone, if you moved out of range of one mast, a central computer would track the direction you’re travelling in and hand you over to the next mast, without interrupting the call.

Roger Southam from Mount Provincial, a London-based property development company, was one of Vodafone’s first business customers. He explains that having a mobile improved his productivity and efficiency.

“I spent my time driving round the country looking at sites, buildings we might develop,” Southam says. “Once I could make calls in the car to get details sent into the office, it saved me catching up on calls when I got back and losing time at the sites, having to sit at a desk making phone calls.”

Southam says that his phone saved him at least a day per week. “Back then, we had no means of communication other than landlines and post,” he says. “We didn’t even have a fax. The mobile phone made life so much more productive. You could spend a week on the road and not be behind when I got back to the office.

“You’d get a map of the area where the coverage was with your phone. Occasionally you’d lose a call and there were a few areas where you couldn’t get a signal, but generally the coverage was fine in the cities I was working in and the motorways I was driving around. Leeds, Bristol, London, Birmingham.”

Southam says that the phone had a huge impact on his business. “There were deals that happened, tenants we signed up, purely because we were able to make a call straight away,” he says. “Today, people take mobile phones for granted. Back then, it was new and no one thought about it as a business tool.”

This was long before mobiles went digital. With analogue, it was easy to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, even by mistake. Southam remembers how “one of my colleagues phoned into a line, got a cross-wire, heard two guys talking about a deal and then a few minutes later he phoned back and stole the deal off them.”

Vodafone had the 1985 market to itself for all of nine days. Then, Cellnet (now O2) launched a competing service and the battle for the UK’s mobile phone contracts began. These days there are so many companies in the game, it pays to stay ahead of the competition.

Call me

Vodafone aims to have 4G coverage for 98 per cent of the UK population by the end of this year, meaning even more base stations in London. Through their Sure Signal project, the company intends to provide 3G coverage in existing ‘not-spots’. “Small units with indoor modems can be placed on houses, shops, churches,” says Dr Rob Matthews, Vodafone’s Community Manager.

These units don’t use a traditional microwave signal which can be blocked by buildings and landscape features. Instead, small nodes and existing internet connections create a high-speed mobile internet connection. “They work over a two hundred and fifty metre radius,” Matthews says.

Nigel Linge explains that this is femtocell technology. “Companies are looking to put smaller base stations inside buildings to get local coverage,” he says. A femtocell is a low-power wireless access point that provides improved localised wireless coverage as a support for the mobile network. Femto equates to one quadrillionth in the metric measurement system.

“The first challenge for mobile providers was coverage, today’s main challenge is connectivity and speed,” Rob Matthews says. That said, Vodafone Chief Executive Jeroen Hoencamp recently stated his belief that customers care more about a reliable mobile network than speed.

Vodafone is also involved in developing the next next-generation mobile technology. The company is working with University of Surrey, Kings College London and Carnegie Mellon University to research the next generation of wireless technologies. Vodafone is also a founding member of the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre.

Last September the company announced a partnership with Dresden University of Technology to research and develop 5G technology. The collaboration will see academics, developers and technology companies explore the capabilities of 5G. They’re also aiming to produce technical guidelines for its development.

“Today, mobile communications is all about moving content from one place to another,” says Professor Gerhard Fettweis, the Vodafone Chair of Mobile Communications Systems, Dresden University of Technology. “Tomorrow it will be about being able to control a vast array of objects in real-time with little human intervention. To get there we need to rethink wireless communications, particularly with regard to data rates, latency and IP services.”

To meet these future demands, Dresden University has just opened its first 5G lab. The lab will focus on how latency can be reduced and speed can be increased in four separate research areas: the cloud, tactile internet applications, wireless networking and silicon chips.

Back in the 1980s, experts predicted Vodafone would do well to sell 10,000 phones. Vodafone itself predicted a maximum market of two million customers. The company is now the world’s second largest telecommunications company. Only China Mobile has greater revenues and more subscribers. The company has over 438 million customers and 11 million fixed broadband customers. It has mobile operations in 26 countries, partners with mobile networks in 55 more and fixed broadband operations in 17 markets.

Not bad for a curry house start-up. Or as Ernie Wise’s comedy partner Eric Morecombe used to say. “What do you think of it so far?”

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