CW@50: From Captain Kirk to 5G – 50 years of mobile

As Computer Weekly prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our first edition in 1966, we look back at 50 years of British innovation and development in mobile networking

The mobile phone as we know it today did not exist in September 1966. But this is not to say that the idea of mobile did not exist, and the idea that one day people around the world might communicate with one another with ease using tiny yet powerful handheld devices was not so far-fetched at all.

Of, course there was one man using mobile technology very publicly in the 1960s, and on Thursday 8 September 1966 – exactly two weeks before Computer Weekly first hit the news-stands – the world met him for the first time. His name was James T. Kirk, and he was captain of the USS Enterprise, a Constitution Class Federation starship.

The communicator, as any Star Trek fan knows, was a flip-phone style device used for communication between orbiting starships and away teams operating on a planet’s surface. It operated on subspace frequencies, bouncing signals across the galaxy at light speed using a system of relay towers that presumably operated in a similar way to our mobile base stations.

Unfortunately in reality, faster-than-light communications break the laws of physics as we know them, and remain a theory. However, throughout the original Star Trek series and its subsequent franchises, the shows’ creators refined the concept of the mobile phone along almost exactly the same lines as real-world mobile technology, culminating in wearable comms badges and watches.

But the similarity may be more than just cosmetic. It has long been held that Martin Cooper, the former Motorola engineer who conceived the first handheld mobile phone in 1973, had the Star Trek communicator in mind when he did so, a connection that – sadly for our purposes – Cooper has since denied. It turns out he was more of a Dick Tracy fan.

Calling all cars

So what, if any, mobile technology did the public have access to in those white-heat of technology days? Well, actually there were a few options, but you would have probably had to have joined the police, or worked for the gas board, to get your hands on a device.

Andy Sutton is a mobile communications expert, professor at Salford University, and principal network architect at EE, who helped design and build some of the first mobile networks and worked for EE’s predecessor, Mercury one2one, when it launched in 1993. He fills in some of the backstory.

Private mobile radio networks, the forebears of the modern mobile network, first came into being in the late 1940s, when police forces brought the first in-car radio sets into use. From the mid-1950s onwards they started to add genuinely mobile walkie-talkies.

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These devices operated over private mobile radio networks to which not only emergency services, but utility providers and taxi companies would also have had access, explains Sutton. At their height – in the mid- to late-60s – 100,000 devices had access to around 10,000 base stations, a thriving British industry that has now all but died out.

Similar technology first fell into the hands of consumers in 1959 but, for the first few years, they had to live in Manchester, where the General Post Office (GPO) rolled out an in-car radiophone system, which was distinctive in that it was the first time in-car devices could connect to the national phone network. By the time Computer Weekly rolled around, the service had been launched in London as well.

“These were very early car phone services that relied on manual operators,” says Sutton, “but they had major issues with frequency use and capacity, which were only addressed in the 1980s.”

There was also citizens’ band (CB) radio, which got its start in the US in the 1940s and rose in popularity in the 1970s helped along by movies and shows such as Smokey and the Bandit or The Dukes of Hazzard; and enthusiasts such as First Lady Betty Ford, who used the handle "First Mama".

In the UK, CB got off to a slower start, and was only legalised in 1981, although people had been using it on the quiet for some years previously. It is still well used today in Britain and was deregulated by Ofcom in 2006. However, CB was only mobile in the sense that it was usually set up in a vehicle and therefore had wheels.

The seed of an idea

The basic idea of a mobile network began in the 1940s in the US at labs owned by the likes of Bell and AT&T, where the first papers setting out the concept of how a mobile, or cellular, network would work saw the light of day in 1947.

In essence, the coverage area was to be literally covered with cells, each one using a base station to communicate with devices in range. However, says Sutton, even though the theory was sound there was one problem: the technology was really not.

“It took 30 years of work to get to the point in the 1970s when technology developed in the 1940s could be practically realised,” he says.

Even in April 1973, when Martin Cooper made the historic first mobile phone call using a prototype Motorola DynaTAC, while standing on Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, the world’s first mobile network – NTT’s in Japan – was still six years away, and the first European network, the Nordic Mobile Telephone System, was nine years off.

Tacs takes the stage

In the UK, the government selected the analogue Total Access Communication System (Tacs) to form the basis of the first mobile networks with the process of development kicking off in June 1982.

Ernest Harrison, chairman of Racal Electronics, was first to apply for a public mobile licence, which was granted in December of that year, with the name Vodafone – a portmanteau of ‘voice’, ‘data’ and ‘phone’, born during a brainstorming session with advertisers Saatchi & Saatchi.

Famously, the first mobile call in the UK was made on 31 December 1984, when Harrison’s son Michael snuck out of a family party to surprise his father by calling him on a Transportable Vodafone VT1 – which retailed for £1,650 at the time.

What I do recall is people saying, ‘Oh, look at that flash git!’ and not seeing the freedom in it that came from efficiency
Roger Southam, early Vodafone customer

However, Vodafone – or Racal Vodafone as it was then, "Vodafones" being the actual phones – sold its first handsets in September 1984, with the first order placed by city stockbroker Mungo Park. Each of Vodafone’s 10 salesmen were given the task of shifting 20 units, but such was the hype at this stage, that they approached the end of the year with an order book of 2,000, not 200 units.

During the course of 1985, Vodafone shifted 12,000 devices and laid down 100 basestations. Meanwhile its rival, BT and Securicor joint venture Cellnet, also kicked off operations that year, both targeting predominantly business users to begin with.

This was the era of shoulder pads, power lunching and two Porsches in the garage and, during the latter half of the 1980s, the mobile phone became somewhat synonymous with the greed-is-good ethos.

Boom years

But there were already practical reasons for getting one, besides showing off that you could afford to. For early Vodafone customer and property business owner Roger Southam, the installation of a Panasonic-built Vodafone VM1 handset in his car in 1985 changed everything.

“There was no catalyst that moved me to get a mobile phone as such, because they didn’t exist before then,” Southam told Computer Weekly in an interview marking Vodafone’s 30th anniversary in 2015.

“But the moment it did exist I bought into it. Mobile was an attribute that, for me, made working more efficient. If there is ever a tool that lets me be more efficient, I will invest. So for me it wasn’t a case of ‘I’ve got to get this.’

Mercury wanted to compete with home phones, which was really ambitious at the time
Andy Sutton, principal network architect at EE

“What I do recall is people saying, ‘Oh, look at that flash git!’ and not seeing the freedom in it that came from efficiency, and from the better use of my time.

“The huge change was, no longer was I driving around with dead time in the car. I could call while driving. When I visited sites I could call the office. It was liberation and freedom, and the ability to be more efficient, to close down deals.”

The handsets at this time were mostly all either Japanese, from the likes of Panasonic, or American Motorolas. But, for those who preferred to buy local, there were a couple of British brands to choose from, notably Technophone, which sold its handsets branded as Excell, and issued one of the first devices that could fit in a shirt pocket. This company was later bought by Nokia and its handsets can be counted as the grandparents of the candy bar form factor, notes EE’s Sutton.

Mobile goes mainstream

The big change for mobile in the UK came in the 1990s, when the analogue Tacs system was superseded by the digital GSM system, and two new operators, Mercury one2one and Orange, got their licences as the government sought to drive more competition in the market.

However, backwards compatibility between generations was a thing of the future, and there was no way to make a TACS phone work on a GSM network, so for a time the two TACS networks, Vodafone and Cellnet, operated both in tandem.

Meanwhile, Mercury – later T-Mobile and now part of EE – was significant at its launch in 1993 for being the world’s first GSM cell network, says Sutton.

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Reflecting the growing trend for consumers, as well as businessmen, to take the plunge into mobile, it launched with the strategy not of pursuing Vodafone and Cellnet, but BT’s landline business.

“Mercury wanted to compete with home phones, which was really ambitious at the time,” says Sutton. “To do this they made calls between their handsets free of charge between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. and at weekends. This drove massive demand, but meant there were big network capacity problems.”

Orange – today also part of EE – forged a similar path, pitching itself heavily at the consumer market and promising wider coverage outside of the UK’s larger cities at launch.

The evolution of the modern mobile

Along with the emergence of the main UK mobile networks throughout the 1990s, handset design evolved as well, transitioning away from the bulky bricks that characterised the 1980s technology, with smaller, more portable form factors, such as the candy bar, flip phones and early sliders. Importantly, many of these devices began to incorporate consumer-friendly features, too, such as games.

The next big change came in the early part of the 2000s, when the second generation (2G) GSM networks began to incorporate general packet radio service (GPRS) technology, giving devices access to the internet for the first time, and laying the foundations for 3G and current 4G LTE networks.

The spectrum for 3G was auctioned in 2000, with the first network to use 3G, market entrant Three, going live on 3 March 2003 (3/3/3).

Even 10 years ago it was hard to envisage my Dad would have a mobile device. He couldn’t work out the remote control
Kevin Curran, professor in computer science at the University of Ulster

The widespread availability of 3G networks was, as we now know, to herald the widespread adoption of the internet on handheld mobile devices, and to support this fundamental change in how consumers used their handsets, the first smartphones began to arrive at about the same time, although it wasn't until 2007 that one gained mass market popularity – although purists will note that the original iPhone did not support 3G.

Subsequently, the smartphone has come to dominate the sector, to the extent that traditional handsets – now known as feature phones – are sold for mere pennies in the UK.

To the future, and the end of mobile?

There can be no doubt that mobile has come a long way since 1966, according to Kevin Curran, professor in computer science at the University of Ulster, and a fellow of the IEEE.

“Even 10 years ago it was hard to envisage my Dad would have a mobile device. He couldn’t work out the remote control,” he says. “It’s just a universal device. The only thing we can be sure of is that we’ll all still have a mobile phone in 10 years’ time.

“The breakthroughs have been enormous. From a networking perspective I know the compression ratios we’ve achieved on speech and data on the average phone right now are incredible. It has become a multifunctional computer, but I will say the device has now reached its final form.”

5G calls and data will literally skim over the backbone of the internet. It’ll come, it’ll be superfast – but it’ll be a hybrid network
Kevin Curran, professor in computer science at the University of Ulster

But with the arguable exception of the launch of 4G, the mobile story has now become less one of radical innovation, and more one of incremental steps forward.

According to Curran, the rate of innovation is slowing rapidly as handset makers struggle to differentiate themselves. Those with marketing clout and budget, such as Apple and Samsung, will do well, but even if the handsets are virtually identical, their rivals will struggle.

Disruption beckons with 5G

Of course, the next standard will be 5G, and here could be where the story, as we have lived it to date, may end for the traditional mobile network.

Curran forecasts that the 5G network will be altogether messier than 4G, and will rely on a combination of cellular towers and small cells that will operate in a similar way to the BT services that allow home broadband users to siphon off a part of their capacity for public Wi-Fi use.

“Consumer small cells will be shipped out from the likes of BT for 5G, so when you’re moving along the street, going into coffee shops and such, you’re no longer relying on cell towers but hopping on and off broadband,” predicts Curran.

5G is really beyond mobile. It’s a new communications concept
Andy Sutton, principal network architect at EE

“5G calls and data will literally skim over the backbone of the internet. It’ll come, it’ll be superfast, but it’ll be a hybrid network, and the communication will take place over the internet.”

“When you put mobility and the internet together you start to see what will happen when 5G comes,” agrees Sutton. “It will be high capacity, low power, and low latency. It will really enable mission-critical services and the internet of things [and] virtual and augmented reality will grow exponentially.

“5G is really beyond mobile,” he concludes. “It’s a new communications concept.”

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