Stephen Temple is an engineer by profession who spent 25 years in the Civil Service (rising to a senior position in the Home Office and DTI) and 18 years in the private sector (rising to Director level including Board level). He has also recently published a book “Casting the Nets”, which provides an unparalleled insight into the great digital transformation of Britain’s communications networks over the period 1984-2004.
Early Life and Education
Stephen Temple was born in Woking, Surrey and was brought up in the village of Pyrford. His father was a market gardener with a sixteen-acre holding.
He went to the local village primary school, failed his Eleven Plus and went on to the local secondary modern school. He says: “My failing the 11+ was a surprise to everybody, but I just could not spell. That blind spot lived with me throughout my life.”
With no idea what kind of career he wanted, Stephen’s mother realised that he quite enjoyed messing with radios and decided to apply to Plessey and Marconi for an apprenticeship for him. He didn’t have the necessary chemistry O level for Plessey but Marconi made him an offer on the basis of his 6 O levels.
Early Career - Marconi
Stephen moved to Chelmsford to join Marconi in 1961 having been offered a place on their technician apprenticeship scheme. Stephen describes it as: “A fantastic company. They invested in training, they invested in their apprentices. They were expanding into everything, in microelectronics, space communications, you name it and they were expanding into it and their apprentices became a critical part of the workforce. It meant you were thrown into doing real things. As, I went through my apprenticeship, I did a year full-time at Colchester Technical College, and then on a part time basis the Ordinary National Certificate and Higher National Certificate in electrical engineering.”
Having trained in different test departments, Stephen asked to be moved to the Technical Authors department on a tip off from one of the engineers he met in one of the test departments. He says: “For someone who had failed his O Level English on my first attempt (spelling let me down again), I thought that was a sort of, strange place to make for, but I was given my own handbook to write; Distance-from-Threshold Indicator. It was a new radar system. You talked to development engineers, listen to how it worked, and you had to write down the descriptions and put it all together. It was a nice project. I delivered a handbook at the end of it.”
After a spell as a technical author, Stephen next requested a move to the systems department following another tip-off from an ex-petty officer for the Navy who was working at Marconi’s as a technical author. He suggested “systems” offered a great future. Stephen went straight into working on a Swedish air defence system contract.
At the age of 21 and with his Marconi experience under his belt, having gained his Higher National Certificate, Stephen took a year out to do the IEE exams, and then decided that he would like to convert his “equivalent to a degree” qualifications into an actual degree. He had seen all around drawbridges being raised for those without degrees. He applied to Southampton University, where Professor Sims, gave him the options of doing an honours degree in two years, with an exemption for the first year, or doing a conversion year and leaving with an MSc in two years. Having gained funding from Essex County Council, Stephen opted for the MSc route. He was forever grateful to Essex County Council for the break they gave him in funding the conversion year.
Stephen says: “Essentially, I was put on the honours course, which was the conversion year, although I wouldn’t get anything at the end of it. It turned out to be the biggest struggle of my life. There came a point where I thought, “I’m not going to make it”. The maths was far more abstract than he had learnt on the HNC courses. The stuff was also coming at me faster than I could absorb it; my brain was like a sieve. I thought, I’ve miscalculated.” Stephen made a plan on how best to turn things around and organised his learning, note taking and time keeping. The social life was put on ice. He adds: “The temptation is to focus on the subjects you know well. I had to spend as much time on the ones I was struggling with as the ones I was absorbing. I did an extraordinary working day, getting up at quite a reasonable time in the morning (for a student) and going to bed late. Everything was scheduled, when I was going to eat, when I went for one hour walk each day to clear the mind, and when I was working usually late into the night. Subjects were systematically rotated through. I sustained this in the three-month run-up to the exams and I managed to scrape through. But I have to say it was just one of those moments when I really had to call on all of my resources to pull myself through.” He carried his rigorous study organisation into the MSc year and getting a distinction in the examinations.
Marconi Space Division
Having accepted an industrial sponsorship for his second year at university from Marconi, Stephen was required to return to work for the company and took a position as a satellite systems engineer in 1968, he remained there until 1971. He says: “It wasn’t a hardship to be forced to work for such a fantastic company that was expanding into a new exciting field”
While at Marconi, Stephen was sent to Singapore as the site systems engineer where the company had a contract with the Royal Air Force for the installation and commissioning of Skynet ground station. Stephen travelled nearer home and spent a few months at the Goonhilly satellite station in Cornwall, seconded into the Post Office, to look at their operations and methods. Another project he worked on was called Moon Bounce that involved bouncing radio signals off the moon; a Government funded project that was axed just at the point when he had done the system design.
Having worked out with a friend from his apprenticeship days that to get ahead, young engineers needed to move jobs every couple of years, Stephen set out to move on from Marconi. He applied for various jobs including satellite systems engineer at the Ministry of Post and Telecoms which had just been hived off from the Post Office, the European Space Agency, the South African post office and the Portuguese post office. Stephen explains: “Surprisingly enough, the Civil Service was so efficient in recruiting, that I had been shortlisted, interviewed and had the job offer before any of other people replied.”
Stephen became a PTO1, Professional and Technology Grade 1 with a team of three people; his first management role. In his first weeks he was sent to the 1971 satellite space conference which was to allocate spectrum for the whole new field of satellite communications. Stephen explains: “Because there were no existing allocations, it meant they had to share spectrum with other services, particularly for example microwave radio relay links. I was made the UK spokesman on sharing spectrum between satellite earth stations and radio relays and was put on a little working group set up by the Conference. I knew absolutely nothing about the subject. It was another one of those nights where you stared at something and thought, I’m going to sink. But again, I drew on my experience of “I know how to tackle something I don’t know” and spent the night pulling the propositions apart’. Before the end of the conference I was arguing with the best of them, generally the French, in terms of how we should frame the regulations and so on.” Stephen adds that this was his first taste of realising he was quite good at being in an international diplomatic environment, as a technical specialist. He adds: “it was the first glimpse that I actually might have the talent for diplomacy in a technical field of activity that I would make my way back to later in life.”
Upon his return he built his team and started working on various spectrum sharing and future things. He, along with his boss, became advisers to the Department of Industry which was starting to invest in satellite communications. Stephen also developed an interest in industrial policy to help British industry, as opposed to just the more abstract world of radio spectrum. The imperative for the UK industry to prosper stayed with him.
He next found himself with another responsibility he had not expected to take on; that of being chair of a sub-group of CEPT, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations to prepare for the 1977 satellite broadcasting conference. The Conference arose out of dispute between countries who wanted to make sure their radio relays were protected, and the counties who wanted to introduce new broadcasting satellite services in the 11.7 to 12.5 gigahertz band. Stephen says: “That was knowledge enhancing experience because you can’t be in broadcasting without all the politics coming out of the woodwork, which, as an engineer, was a total revelation of the disputes and tensions existing between countries, even within Europe”.
At the conference, he led a small European team that worked so well together. Against all the odds, under huge pressure and working extraordinary hours we not only delivered a plan just in time, but it was a great plan. That was a beautiful experience. For the first time in my life I felt myself to be a European as well as British”. The plan itself was later overtaken by technology advances and never implemented.
Stephen says that throughout his career, until a point in 1976 when he attended a conference in Japan, he had only ever been aiming at the job above him. He says: “The limit of my ambition was that perhaps I could do the job above me, and maybe, if I was really good, I might get that job.” However, a night out drinking with a boastful senior Japanese Civil Servant who claimed he decided Japan’s future, he saw for the first time that the sky may be the limit within his chosen specialist field. He came to realise later that it was possible to wield enormous power as a senior British Civil Servant in a specialist field because everyone above you knew far less than you did on the technical directions of travel. If the technical perspective was wisely brought together with the economics, the industrial politics, the international dimensions, he could personally change the future of his country in his own technical field. Shaping my country’s future became his new ambition.
In 1978 Stephen sought his next promotion and took a role in the Home Office Directorate of Telecommunications managing the police, fire and home defence services. He says: “It was a leap away from what I had been doing but it was promotion. I realised with retrospect that was not a sensible decision; just going for promotion for its own sake, grabbing the next job up, without realising it might be a cul de sac.
The role involved hundreds of projects, a lot of them very small, going through different police forces and fire brigades. Stephen describes it as “a real treadmill of a job”, adding; “there was one really big project. The police and fire services lost the radio spectrum to sound broadcasting at the 1979 world radio conference. My job was to totally re-engineer the whole networks into new frequency bands.
I was involved in the Civil Defence Review in 1981, and that led to another big job of revamping the home defence communications needed in the event of a nuclear attack. That was an intellectually challenging job, because you had to imagine the unimaginable and focus on the fact that, if such a terrible thing occurred, what was left of your country would need some sort of organisation to pull things back together and communications would be vital to get different fragments that were left to work together. So, I was motivated, but I had to stand back from the awfulness of the circumstances when it would be needed and just do the best job within the budget.”
Department of Trade and Industry
In 1984, after five years with the Home Office, Stephen moved to the Department of Trade and Industry as the Director of Technical Affairs in the Telecommunications Division. I was on top of my job at the Home Office, although not exceptional and was definitely up for a change.
In deciding to seek a new role, Stephen had asked himself fundamentally, what was he really good at? He says: “I went back to what I was doing in 1971-77 and I thought, that is where I was exceptional. I need to get back to doing that. I looked at the coming privatisation of British Telecom and introduction of competitors, and I theorised that BT couldn’t represent Britain on behalf of all the rivals in the international standards anymore. The country would need someone technically competent and neutral to hold the ring. So, literally, I looked up the relevant Under-Secretary in the phone book and wrote to him saying, ‘I think you’ve got this need, and I’m the person I think can do it.’”. He called me over for a chat. He was persuaded.
The journey into the position, however, was not smooth. The Under-Secretary, Jonathan Solomon understood Stephen was correct, but it took twelve months to create the post because Stephen demanded a Director level position in order to have the authority to represent the country. The Civil Service resisted this because most Director roles were traditionally held by generalists and Stephen was a specialist. In the midst of it all, a general election was called, and then the Under-Secretary interested in bringing Stephen across resigned after falling out with the Minister Kenneth Baker. Stephen found himself having to compete to get the position he had been instrumental in creating.
In his new role, Stephen got involved in creating the Single Market in telecoms. One of the first meetings with other European officials arose from the UK hosting a meeting of a group called GSM. Stephen says: “The group had been running for three years and I couldn’t find any papers on what our objectives were for that group. There was just a very vague idea that we needed a pan-European cellular system. At that time, it was a hangover of the failed attempt to try and find a European analogue version. It had fallen apart quite spectacularly.” He continues: “I started to think fundamentally, well, analogue or digital future? What would the decision swing on?”
Calling in experts from Cellnet and Vodafone, Stephen created a set of five criteria on which to base the decision. He says: “If the digital research people could demonstrate to everybody that there is a reason to invest in digital and bin analogue, then the decision would swing around that. A common digital system across Europe was attractive but not if your mobile operators had just invested heavily in an analogue one and it was just as good. The starting point was to get my industry to buy into some concrete reasons why they might want to go digital in order to bring them along with me.” He explains that deciding the criteria was the easy part, the battle was with the rest of Europe to accept the principles, he says: “They saw me just being negative, trying to shoot digital down in order to sell our analogue TACS standards to everybody. But eventually, they accepted our decision criteria and even added a sixth.”
Against the backdrop of cellular phones being mainly only used as car phones, the department gave a research grant to a small company, called Technophone, to build a portable mobile phone that would fit into a pocket. Stephen wanting to find out if they were just a gimmick or something truly useful that would endure, so he brought two phones, one for his boss and one for him at £2000 each. He continues: “I carried this around, and I realised when I left it at home, I missed it. That told me portable phones would endure. Secondly, I was waiting in an immigration queue in Heathrow and I saw this massive great long queue of businessmen. I imagined everyone would find one of these small hand portables useful when they go to Europe on business or pleasure. Those two reflections brought me to the view that this would be good for my country and set out to make a Europe wide cellular service based on pocket sized phones happen.”
Stephen outlines in his book ‘Casting the Nets’, the strategy required to get the GSM cellular technology to launch, including buy-in at the European political level, commitment by the cellular radio operators to purchase the new digital network, opening a service on a common date, and the common technical standardisation effort in GSM. He worked out the principles of how it should work. He says: “It seemed to me that, the mobile operators were the people who drove the market, because they had speculatively bought the networks that in turn drove the whole industrial food chain. To reduce the risks to an individual mobile operator in making such a big bet they needed to act in concert to guarantee the necessary scale economies. Stephen calculated that it needed at least three big countries to move in unison. He explains: “That’s how I came to the idea of the GSM memorandum of understanding, which has proved to be the most important documents in mobile history as it created today’s cohesive global mobile industry. The commitment asked for was simple, ‘We the undersigned all agree to procure networks to the same digital standard and all to be introduced by the same date, 1991.’ I put a threshold that GSM wouldn’t happen unless the operators from three large countries signed it.”
In September 1984, fourteen operators from thirteen countries signed the MoU, soon everyone in Europe signed it and then it went global. Stephen concludes: “A simple idea created a massive juggernaut of all the operators (and their suppliers) working in synchronism with such enormous collective procurement power that they no longer had to gamble on the mobile technology future…they created it. The model has endured through 3G, 4G and now 5G”
In 1991 when the first GSM calls were made, Stephen received a promotion to Grade 4 as head of sponsorship of the telecommunications, radio and broadcasting industries in the DTI. Throughout his time at DTI, Stephen worked under a number of politicians including Norman Tebbit, Lord Young, Geoffrey Pattie, and Michael Heseltine. He says he learnt so much, particularly from Lord Heseltine, on his favourite subject of how to foster a strong British industry.
Stephen says: “If I was to leave two little footnotes for posterity they would be:
First, I think it’s very important for people in the public sector to feel they can take a risk. The measurement of success should not be that nothing fails but, instead, has to be “getting enough things right”. There will be failures in a high-risk area like technology. But you’ve got to have that courage and conviction to go out there to improve the country and success is getting enough things right.”. His own score is that GSM massively over-shot the target he’s set out to hit, digital terrestrial TV was bang on target and digital audio broadcasting significantly under achieved.
My second piece of advice is: “It’s all right to fail, if you can actually learn lessons from the failures. If something does fail, don’t think that “ it’s life over”. Pick yourself up, learn the lessons and be optimistic that somethings will lay around the corner, pick the right one and run with it. The broadcasting satellite plan I delivered in 1977 turned out to be a failure but what I learnt from it about myself led to today’s successful trillion-dollar global cellular mobile industry.
Interviewed by: Richard Sharpe on the 3rd April 2019 at the WCIT Hall
Transcribed by: Susan Hutton
Abstracted by: Lynda Feeley