history of telecoms

When I was a Lad…..

40 Years of Telecoms – Remembering When the UK was at the Forefront

As someone who has nearly completed 40 years in the telecom industry, it seems appropriate to look back. Let’s see how the pace of change has increased and then ponder what changes are likely to happen in the future.

No mobiles!

sony walkmanBack in the late 1970s none of the elements that we all take for granted, in our personal and work lives, existed.   There were no mobiles. The only computers were mainframes the size of a small aircraft hanger. It was still 10 years to go before Tim Berners-Lee would conceive of the internet.  Even basic features such as voicemail did not exist; you relied on colleagues to answer the phone and scribble a message.   The advantage was no one bothered you on holiday and all you could do on the way to work was read a newspaper.   The Walkman was only launched in Japan in the middle of 1979.  It took a bit longer to reach the UK.

So how have we got to where we are today and what happens next?

Remember Cellnet?

history of telecoms and mobilesIn 1985 Cellnet and Vodafone, two rival operators launched Britain’s first cellular telephone service in 1985.  Cellnet was partly owned by BT who, rather short sightedly, sold it and then spent £12.5 billion in 2015 to buy it’s way back into the market.   The UK was actually ahead of France and Germany in launching the technology as it often was in those days.  Unfortunately now, when it is more core to our lives, we have fallen behind.


Four years later it was a Brit, Tim Berners Lee whilst working at CERN wrote down his ideas for the web and followed that up in the following by specifying HTML (the hypertext language) and HTTP (the protocol).



The following year in 1991 a British Company – Orbitel (then a joint venture between Racal and Plessey) created the first GSM phone.  Unfortunately they did not capitalise on it and Orbitel ultimately ended up being part of Ericsson.

The first-ever text

It was another Brit in 1992 that sent the first ever text message.  Neil Papworth, at the age of 22, sent it to Vodafone director Richard Jarvis.  Pre emojis it simply said Merry Christmas.  That same year saw dial-up Internet access first introduced in the UK by Pipex.


That was probably the last year that the UK was ahead of the rest of the world.  In 1995 it was an Israeli company VoaclTec that developed VoIP although it would be a technology that needed better broadband before it could really take off.   It would be five years before ADSL broadband was commercially launched in the UK.  And it would be a further seven years in 2007 that VoIP became prevalent enough for Ofcom feel the need to publish “Regulation of VoIP Services” – which is still available online to read.

3G & Skype

In the meantime, Japan launched the world’s first commercial 3G network in Japan on 1 October 2001.  The technology would not be available in the UK until 2003 and still hasn’t reached some parts today.  In between Nokia had launched the first ever camera phone in Europe.   That year also say the launch of Skype and the saw the start of decline in international call revenues for operators.

4G & the iPhone

By 2007 the world of mobiles was revolutionised by the IPhone, with Blackberry’s then Chief Executive saying touchscreen phones would never catch on.    The device was undoubtedly helped by the arrival of 4G which was first launched in late 2009 in Stockholm and Oslo.  As a sign of the ever increasing gap the UK had to wait almost 3 years before EE launched it to 11 cities in October 2012.


By 2008 Virgin had launched one of the first fibre broadband services and a year later BT announced they would connect 2.5 million homes to fibre to the premise by 2012.  They achieved 10% of that number by 2015.

Government broadband promises

Governments began making broadband promises – most of which totally underestimated the growth of the digital age and the inadequacy of plans.  This started with Labour government in 2009 promising that all UK homes would receive 2 Mbps broadband by 2012.  Two years later the coalition Government changed that to 90 percent of UK premises receiving 24mbps by 2015.  This was then pushed back to 2017.

The last few years have seen the growth of VoIP and SIP based services.  15% of business connections are now VoIP and SIP has overtaken ISDN as a means of connecting PBXs.  Whatapps has over 1 billion users worldwide and the numbers of text messages has fallen by half since is peak.

And finally… 2018

In February 2018, BT  confirmed that it will be spending at least £3 billion to roll out FTTP broadband in the UK by 2020.   Their target means that would still leave us only reaching the point the rest of Europe currently averages

The Government has said we should be fully FTTP by 2033 when countries such as South Korea and Japan who are leading the new technical advances are already in the high 80% level.   We are just starting the first trial of 5G n one city when Japan plans to launch it commercially in 2020 and South Korea the three mobile operators have combined to build a single 5G network which is planned for launch in March 2019.  Consequently Samsung will be able to steal a lead on bringing 5G devices to the market.  Could you see Vodafone, BT,

So, what have the last 40 years taught us.  Firstly the despite having invented many of the technologies the UK has failed to exploit them.  Secondly various Governments of all political colours have made promises to improve our infrastructure and consistently failed and now announce future plans with dates that are so far ahead at least two elections will be fought beforehand.   Without doubt we will become more and more dependent on our handheld devices but we may be able to use them for less things and in fewer places than other countries