By Richard Sharpe
The first week of a new year is often slow for news: Parliament is in recess; few courts civil or criminal are sitting; and commerce and industry have barely woken up. But in 1985 and 2000 there was very important news for the IT industry.
1985 - UK's First Cellular Network
As the bells chimed to bring in the new year in 1985 the telecommunications company Vodafone staged a PR stunt to publicise its new cellular phone network. Michael Harrison used a brick mobile phone to call his father, Sir Ernest Harrison chairman of Vodafone’s parent, Racal. Reporting this event the next day The Times called it the first cellular phone service in the UK. It headed the story on page two “Mobile phones boost”. “The Vodafone system uses hundreds of low power radio transmitters each serving a small area or ‘cell’. Each cell is linked to a central computer which will automatically switch telephone users from one transmitter to another without interruption.” Mobile phones were no longer the prerogative of the military nor tied to cars: they could now be carried about by individual users.
Both Vodafone and Cellnet, a joint operation of BT and Securicor, had since 1983 been devising and building their respective mobile phone networks. Vodafone used Ericsson technology as well as its military expertise. Vodafone got the PR jump on Cellnet whose service was announced in the second week of the year on Jan 9th in The Times. “The battle for radio telephone customers begins in earnest today as British Telecom and its partner Securicor launch their service to compete with the one started by Racal-Vodafone at the beginning of the year.” The message was pushed home by a Cellnet advertisement right under the story.
BT had been privatised the year before in 1984. Lord Baker, then Ken Baker MP and Minister for IT, had pushed privatisation of BT through despite being warned it would be a failure. See https://archivesit.org.uk/interviews/lord-kenneth-baker/ It was a roaring success. BT had already been forced to face competition in a policy called liberalisation since 1982. One down side of liberalisation for BT was that it would now face competition in all of its activities, hence the Vodafone venture in competition to Cellnet
BT’s Cellnet, was started by John Carrington as the first MD based with only a secretary in Euston Tower in 1983. Carrington had to recruit his team, select standards and find a partner. The standard he selected was TACS, an analogue standard. He was greatly helped by Motorola, the US electronics company whose cellphone was the first in the world to be ratified by a regulator in 1983. The Cellnet service would charge £1,200 to £1,500 per phone and a monthly charge of between £50 and £60. Vodafone used Dixons and the Automobile Association to sell its service. Cellnet used 11 retailers including Air Call and Motorola.
This competition turbo charged the growth of the market and from 1986 the UK had the largest national mobile phone network in the world in Cellnet. Digitisation of mobile networks came later, but this is a story to be told in this summer in a later blog with a central role played by a British civil servant.
Fifteen years later than the launch of the first mobile networks in the first week of 2000 it was what did not happen rather than what did happen that was newsworthy. Nuclear reactors did not melt down, planes did not fall out of the sky and energy networks did not seize up. In other words, the millennium bug did not cripple societies or economies.
Opinion in the AIT archive is split: was it was a scare story to shake down customers by vendors or a wonderful case of forensic maintenance? Read the full story here.