The Mobile Empire – and my (very small) part in its creation

Mobile services, or Cellular if you prefer, still seem very new, very vibrant, very today. The 1980s – when many of the first generation of commercial mobile networks were being launched – is still in our living memories. Well for most of us it is anyway. To say we have come a long way in a short space of time is an understatement. No industry, no product, no service, no appliance has seen growth and adoption rates to get anywhere near matching that of mobile.

Today’s key statistics speak for themselves: over 3.5 billion unique mobile customers and a one trillion dollar industry. Not bad for starters and for most industry insiders we are still at the beginning, although perhaps the end of the beginning. A few years back Ericsson told us that they believed there would be 50 billion connections by 2020, which is a mind boggling number! If we buy into this vision of IoT then we are truly still in our mobile infancy.

Mobile, along with the Web and Internet has changed the telecommunication landscape beyond recognition in the last 30 years. Indeed, between the two, they have revolutionised whole industry sectors and disrupted many more. At both a business and a personal level, so much of what we do today is related to our ability to be always connected and to be connected to the whole world.

So maybe this is a good time for some reflection. Certainly the Science Museum in London think it is and have opened a stunning new exhibition called “Information Age: Six Networks That Changed Our World“. Naturally Cellular/Mobile and the Internet/Web figure prominently in this exhibition (for the curious, the other four being The Cable, The Telephone Exchange, Broadcast and The Constellation).

I was honoured and privileged to be asked by the Science Museum to help them put together the story of early mobile in the UK. Now I will be the first to admit that my part in the creation of mobile was very small and very many others contributed so much more than I, but having lived through this period I was at least on hand to report first hand the events and the background to how cellular got a toe hold and then rapidly established itself as a major competitor to the wireline services of the day. My job, in these early days, was with one of the two licensed operators, Cellnet, to find suitable locations for radio base stations and then build them and install and commission the first generation of equipment. These were analogue TACS (Total Access Communication System) base stations and used – hard to believe today – cavity resonators which needed a set of spanners to tune for each single channel!

We’ve come a long way for sure. Today’s LTE equipment  – which is many more times the capacity of these early base stations – would fit in a lap top. It’s also fascinating to see some of the mobile phones and devices we have used in the last 30 years. I remember well those that laughed at our original 10 year plan which ended with one million customers and those that said the technology will never work properly or scale to levels needed for a mass communication system. It’s a good job that there were reformers, trend setters and go-getters taking the view that we were on the brink of something new, something big and a real game changers. The early fight for network coverage and for customers is explained in the exhibition and the red corner is well represented as well.

The period under review in the exhibition takes us through the creation of GSM, surely the most influential piece of standardisation work ever completed. GSM, from its early European foundations became the dominant global mobile communication system and its huge economy of scale formed the virtuous circle of lower (equipment and device) costs and ever higher customer demand. The mobile world never looked back and when umts – the third generation or 3G arrived – a truly global standard had been established. The rest is history, and being history it is appropriate that the Science Museum celebrate Mobile as one of the six networks that changed our lives.

I was invited to the preview today ahead of the official opening by Her Majesty the Queen next week. It’s a fascinating and brilliantly put together exhibition. It’s easy to find oneself having spent the whole day there without realising it.

At Azenby, all my colleagues have been involved in this historic voyage in one way or another. We pride ourselves in saying we have over 300 years’ experience and have ‘been there- done that’ and know mobile inside out. Looking around this exhibition though made me realise there is a lot more to Azenby than just that. We can look back with some pride and say ‘yes, we are amongst the pioneers of mobile’. And today, we still help bring about change, drive through transformation and help the mobile industry as it continues to explore new frontiers.