Telecoms in the 1990s and 2000s
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:
Richard Lambley, Land Mobile's founding editor

Richard Lambley speaks to Sam Fenwick about the telecommunication industry’s earlier years and some of the highlights from his time as editor of Land Mobile

While his insight piece does an excellent job of capturing the state of the wireless communications industry when Land Mobile was founded, we would be remiss if we didn’t ask Richard Lambley for more details and anecdotes gathered from the broad sweep of his time as founding editor.

To this end, I visited Lambley at his home. When I arrived, he was tinkering with a system that uses an antenna and Raspberry Pi computer board to track commercial flights across South-East England – nicely illustrating the way his interest in radio communications is a life-long fascination rather than simply being a profession.

One thing that Lambley was always keen to do during his time as editor (and is still something of a Land Mobile tradition to this day) was to highlight “small companies that had done something creative or clever and giving them a bit of publicity to help them along”. As an example, he cites a mobile data terminal developed by a Finnish company, which he saw for the first time at the CeBIT show in Hanover, Germany. “I thought this was novel and wrote it up and gave it a bit of space in my report. I was quite surprised to get a phone call 18 months later from a company which was operating a fleet of prison vans. They had put these mobile data terminals in their vans so that they could be tracked on their journeys, which was a new idea at the time. To have seen this little product go from just something at an exhibition to actually working because of a story I wrote was quite exciting really. I felt I’d done a bit of good in bringing it to their notice.”

In the early years, “people were making terrible mistakes with radio, it was a big learning curve for everybody”. Lambley remembers visiting a provincial brewery which wanted an onsite radio system as it had a lot of “people working in hard-to-get-at places, it was all steelwork and tanks and pipes going everywhere”. They opted for DECT cordless phones, which were just coming in at the time. “They soon discovered that DECT phones don’t do very well if there are a lot of radio reflections as it interferes with the timeslot structure of the transmission – they ended up having to install two or three times the number of base stations originally planned just to make these handsets work, so it was a rather expensive project for the supplier, who evidently hadn’t foreseen this.”

Lambley came across this issue again a few years ago when he was visiting “a glassworks which was making enormous sheets of cheap glass. They had a huge production line, which was about a quarter of a mile long. They decided to use DECT cordless phones, and they worked a treat until they installed the huge glass-making machinery” – at which point the system stopped working and the owners decided to put in a private GSM network instead.

GSM – God send mobiles
One of the topics we spent some time on was the early days of digital cellular technology and its evolution into the behemoth we have today. While most Land Mobile readers have lived through this transition, Lambley offers an informed perspective as he attended many of the initial events and conferences that gave rise to 2G and 3G.

The ‘chicken and egg’ problem for telecoms (networks are useless without terminals and vice versa) reared its head for 2G at the 1992 Pan-European Digital Cellular Radio Conference in Berlin (a precursor to MWC – Mobile World Congress – Barcelona), at which point although infrastructure was available, the only evidence of the handsets that the manufacturers at the time were working to produce were a few product data sheets on the tables that passed for stands in a 200- to 250-seater ballroom where the event took place (a far cry from the gargantuan undertaking that is today’s MWC Barcelona with its 2,400 exhibitors and 107,000 visitors). Such was the concern that, according to Lambley, it prompted one delegate to crack that GSM should really stand for “God send mobiles”.

Mobiles came in time, but Lambley says some of the first iterations were almost the size of a sewing machine, fantastically heavy and short-lived, with nickel-cadmium batteries that could last for only eight hours. A big change in battery technology was called for, and fortunately lithium batteries came quite quickly. In addition to their higher energy density, these are less of an environmental hazard when discarded. Mobile phones’ first foothold was in the business world, but they were very expensive – both in terms of the devices (a fact partially hidden by wrapping the cost of the phones into airtime contracts) and the calls (if you made a 10-second call, you’d be charged for the full minute, and the concept of bundled calls had yet to arrive).

While it was still unattractive to managers of vehicle fleets (because of the tendency for duplex calling to encourage people to talk far longer than they would when using a half-duplex PTT device, making it easy to rack up a hefty bill), GSM was good at providing national coverage; but national and regional PMR networks based on analogue trunking in Band III began to provide an affordable alternative. GSM also solved the problem of low network capacity that had frustrated early users of analogue systems – when they moved from the area covered by one base station to that covered by another, there would be a switching delay, and if the station was busy the call would drop.

3G’s ‘killer app’
While much has been made of the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered generations of cellular technology, Lambley notes that back when 3G was being introduced, one of the biggest talking points at the GSM World Congress was the “great anxiety” over how to make revenues out of the vast increase in bandwidth. So began a quest for 3G’s elusive killer app. The obvious candidate was video telephony, but this had failed commercially several times in the past when offered by fixed telephone operators. At that time, he adds, “they simply didn’t see the mobile internet coming and how it would rapidly consume huge amounts of bandwidth”.

I can’t help but draw parallels with the debate over 5G – it may well be that data-based services are a bit like a gas, in that over time they will quite happily diffuse to fill all the available ‘space’.

Paging Dr…
One story that sticks in Lambley’s mind is about paging. He once interviewed a doctor who claimed to be responsible for its genesis in the UK – “he was having problems caring for his rural practice outside Cambridge, as when he was out in his car, he’d be unreachable. He and his wife had arranged a system in which if there was an emergency, she’d ring up one of the residents nearby to him and tell them to hang a towel out of the window. When he saw [it] he would find somewhere to call back home and find what the emergency was and go off to save lives. But he said to his friend at Philips, ‘How about making a radio device that you could send a bleep to, and I would receive the bleep in my pocket and I could go and ring back?’ – and that was paging.”

Not every technology has succeeded – Lambley recalls Telepoint, “which has pretty much been forgotten… the concept of having low-power base stations in shopping centres, offices and public places. The idea was that you’d subscribe to the network that operated the sites, and if you needed to make a phone call, you could go to one of these points, which had a range of about 100-150 yards around it, and you could make a call with your cordless telephone from home or your office. That was quite exciting at the time, although not enough to make it a big commercial success.”

Of course, it’s not just technology that has changed over the years. Lambley remembers how the telecoms sector’s love affair with consumers began with a paging service that became fashionable among teenagers. For ‘only’ £20 or so, people could buy a subscription-free message pager, and their friends could call a premium telephone number to leave messages. This concept led to the introduction of pay-as-you-go/pre-paid cellular phones. Similarly, marketing and branding took a quantum leap in 1998 when a French manufacturer introduced the first coloured GSM phone – it was a startling shade of lime green. Up until that point, Lambley says the debate was only over what shade of grey or black a phone should be. The lime green phone was to be marketed at teenagers – and when Lambley pointed out to the company that teenagers couldn’t afford mobile phones, the response was simply ‘Well, maybe we can find a way to make them affordable’. The rest is history.

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