This week is the 35th anniversary of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) technical assembly which was chaired by Professor Stephen Temple OBE. 

ETSI may be just one of the alphabetti spaghetti of standards bodies in the world but it is a vital one for European IT.  It was set up because the EU wanted to have a single market by 1992: to do that  in telecoms meant having standards for the EU and EFTA countries, not just national standards set by the local telecoms authority and its suppliers.  In1987 the Commission called for ideas on what should be done: the ETSI was the idea.   It would be:

  • a standards-making body for European EU and EFTA members;
  • listening to the Commission and its priorities;
  • keeping up with market needs and fast moving technology; and
  • including telecom suppliers, network operators and others.

Temple explains in his book Casting Nets* that it would have a permanent staff working on the most important standards.  It was decided, by a mistake, to put it in Nice France on a green field site or rather a rocky site.

Temple was elected the head of the Technical Assembly, the other Assembly being the General Assembly.  It stretched his skills as a technical diplomat chairing the Assembly and getting the different groups and factions to work together for the four years holding the chair.

The groups were suppliers of telecoms equipment, the telecoms authorities of member states, the Commission’s representatives and, eventually, observers from outside Europe such as Australia called Associate Members.   Eventually the ETSI had 800 members from 66 countries and five continents.

The first technical assembly was held in Nice in a large convention centre from the 31st May to June 1st in 1988.

Temple, then a senior civil servant in the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), was one of four in the executive group of ETSI.   As he says in his book: “The pace was fast, and the Technical assemblies intense, but it worked.”

He had already taken a large role in getting GSM established, putting Europe in front of the world in mobile telecoms.   Chairing the Technical Assembly he was able to schedule developments in the mobile sector which led to the success of GSM and then the take-up of UMTS.   They had been rivals but he put the development of UMTS into the GSM group: “My objective was to slow its pace so that UMTS could be sequenced as a subsequent generation of mobile technology.  It was a controversial move.  However, it set a pattern on orderly generations of cellular mobile technology standards,” he writes.

Temple was open about his relations with three senior Conservative ministers during his work at the DTI in his contribution to the Archive.

He had a real brush with Norman Tebbit who, he says, had an “ideological obsession” against the European Commission and Union.  Temple through the Conservative party was all for open liberal markets.  Temple had proposed pooling some standards testing with other EU members.  But Tebbit shot him down because it was all about sovereignty, as Tebbit told him.

In contrast, Geoffrey Pattie “was a European, committed to the European Single Market. He… came to the same view, independently, that I came to, that this was going to be good for consumers to be able to go across Europe. And if you think of a market, it needs good communications. So businesses are going to be travelling everywhere, and they’ve got communication …And he really did take a lot of heat, because, at one particular point Reagan wanted to borrow the GSM frequencies, and everyone thought that, you know, they’d never see them back et cetera. And he stood the ground, and, Reagan had a lot of sway with Mrs Thatcher, and so he took a lot of heat from that. But he stood the ground, and we managed to keep the frequencies in, on, you know, reserved for GSM. But, so he, you know, he was very very supportive. But he had a fantastic charm, you know. You put him into bat, I mean you were so confident, you know, he’d charm the other, you know, the other ministers, and, you know, and really get on well with them.”

Temple also has praise for Michael Heseltine.   “He’s one of my heroes…I mean I learnt so much from him. When I first went in to see him, you know, with my team, we had a bit of trepidation, because he had this sort of, swinging the Mace around, and, he had written a book about, ‘I would intervene before breakfast, dinner and,’ et cetera. We didn’t know what to expect. You know, we sort of, had to put on our mail suits and go out and tell the industry what to do, oh, God knows what, you know. And he was so nice and so charming. He said… We asked him, ‘What do you want us to do?’ And he said, ‘I haven’t got a clue,’ he said. ‘I want you to tell me that. I want you to go out and talk to a lot of people in industry and then tell me, tell me, you know, what, you know, what you want me to do.’ And, you know, very very thoughtful, very very courteous, you know, in terms of a minister to deal with, you know, very very courteous. He, he really did listen. He would argue, ask questions, but you know, you could hear him listening.”

Temple retired from the civil service in 2006 and became a visiting professor at the University of Surrey 5G innovation Centre in 2013.

*Temple, Stephen, (2018) Casting the Nets: from  GSM to digital TV,  Grosvenor House Publishing Limited, Tolworth, Surrey