Land Mobile: The early years
Written by: Richard Lambley | Published:

Looking at the first few issues of Land Mobile, founding editor Richard Lambley discusses how different the wireless comms industry was back in those days

Twenty-five years? Really, that doesn’t sound so very long. Yet 1993 was in many ways a watershed year in communications, and Land Mobile was born into a telecoms world which was already changing fast.

That year brought the opening of the Single European Market, supported by the new GSM standard as its mobile comms platform for doing business. GSM was conceived to replace various mutually incompatible analogue systems which had proliferated across Europe – and its far-sighted design and advanced features soon brought it huge commercial success, not just on its home turf but around the world.

But as yet it was for voice calls only: GSM packet data, SMS and (yes!) mobile fax were still to come. However, in the UK, 1993 saw the first 1,800MHz GSM system (then known as DCS1800) in the consumer-orientated One2One network from Mercury Communications, though initially this served only the London area. In fixed-line communications, the internet too was in its infancy, the first dial-up modem services having been introduced in the UK during the preceding year.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that professional two-way radio was then regarded as a branch of black magic, opaque to all but a few. Information was largely exchanged through printed media and at exhibitions and technical meetings. Businesses, even relatively small ones, employed specialised radio experts to run their mobile communications. Thus it was that Land Mobile began as a spin-off of the then Mobile Radio Users’ Association (MRUA), a group which staged an annual three-day residential conference in the convivial surroundings of an Oxford or Cambridge college. The list of delegates for 1993 portrays a communications environment very different from today’s, in which police forces, fire brigades, transport operators, water and energy utilities, the AA and RAC all managed large regional and even nationwide private radio systems to support their field operations.

The MRUA’s other role was to lobby government administrators on matters of concern to radio users – and hence our first cover personality, in December 1993, was Jim Norton, the new chief executive of the Radiocommunications Agency (RA), a body which much later was merged into Ofcom. In an interview inside, Mr Norton spoke of his determination to make the RA a proactive and supportive regulator, enabling British business and industry to expand the use of radio and exploit its rapidly growing contribution to the national economy.

Practical information
From the start, Land Mobile aimed to provide practical, how-to-do-it information for potential radio users through illustrated visits to working installations and the people involved. For our first case study, we focused on the container port at Southampton, which had taken the boldly innovative step of installing mobile data terminals to link its giant quayside cranes and straddle carriers to the mainframe computer that managed container movements across the site. The wireless terminals, by Dopra (one of many radio names now vanished), replaced an on-site voice radio system that had relied on as many as six operators in a control room, reading out movement instructions from tear-off sheets as they issued from the mainframe.

In other reports in that first issue, we noted numerous comings and goings on the airwaves. There was an early demonstration of SMS by Vodafone, using its Paknet radio data network to send text to an Orbitel GSM phone, while plans were being laid for a trial in Cambridge of Europe’s nascent DECT digital cordless telephone technology. To the alarm of some in the industry, the National Band Three (NB3) ‘public access mobile radio’ (PAMR) network was to absorb some of its major rivals, the regional Freecall systems run by Motorola’s Communications Group. With this move, NB3 enlarged its user base to more than 41,000 mobiles. Shortly it would be seeking to head off stiff competition from cellular by offering subsidised mobiles priced at a mere £199.

Meanwhile, we reported the closure, after only 20 months, of the ambitious Rabbit ‘telepoint’ network, a system of public hotspots where a home or office cordless phone could be used to make, and in its final days receive, calls. With a network of 12,000 telepoint sites, more than it had subscribers, Rabbit was defeated by public indifference, as three earlier telepoint operators had been – a sad end to a technology which, only a few years before, had been forecast to attract subscribers by the million.

Nevertheless, Rabbit’s parent company was back in Land Mobile just four issues later with news of its DCS1800 network, which would carry the mysterious name Orange. Opening at the end of the month with a promised 50 per cent UK population coverage, the service would offer a range of novel features, including calling line identity display on its Nokia handsets, Orange Answerphone voicemail, SMS, a second line capability, and call restriction and barring facilities. Data services based on a Nokia PCMCIA card coupled to a PC were to begin trials with a large customer during the summer.

Finding spectrum
Working to lay some foundations for the rush of new-generation radio technologies during the 1990s was the CEPT, which then represented the often bureaucratic radio and postal administrations of 37 European countries. But speakers at its conference in Madrid recognised a need to look ahead on a 10- or 20-year timescale, towards defining harmonised spectrum allocations that would minimise interference and create markets for new services sizeable enough to interest equipment manufacturers. The CEPT was preparing to undertake a major study of frequency use in the VHF-UHF ranges to forecast growth and identify emerging needs for which spectrum would have to be found.

Forces resistant to change included the military, reluctant to release any of its vast swathes of megahertz despite the recent ending of the Cold War. NATO, grudgingly, had made a modest offer of 7MHz for a TETRA band. But with the civil spectrum notionally full, there was little scope for refarming existing allocations to improve utilisation. In the UK, for example, the uplink and downlink frequencies in the UHF band had been unwittingly reversed with respect to mainland Europe, causing a long-standing continental interference problem that had not been resolved. Partial relief eventually came with the migration to Airwave by the emergency services.

One spectrum-saving idea floated for perhaps the first time was to replace the usual flat radio licence fee with a charge per kilohertz of bandwidth and per square kilometre. This spectrum-pricing principle was soon adopted eagerly by the UK administration – heartened, perhaps, by praise from a conference speaker from Brazil, who declared that the UK topped the list of liberalised regulatory regimes. Yet even in the UK, she observed, to obtain a radio licence it was necessary to complete a 20-year-old form of 30-50 pages.

Further down our list of contents was advice from the signalling specialist Zetron on how to buy a radio system, and then a report from the busy Comex 93 trade show, where we spotted such novelties as a GPS-enabled automatic vehicle location system for trunked PMR mobiles from Key Radio; a hand-portable mobile data terminal from network operator RAM Mobile Data and handheld computer specialist Psion; the new MT-8 analogue cell phone from Mitsubishi; and Orbitel’s new GSM pocket phone, the second-smallest yet (though it still took a full-size SIM card). Pictures in these pages were all in black and white – colour printing then was too costly to use throughout the magazine.

Shared services
For our second issue, dated January 1994, we turned the spotlight on trunked radio and the various regional and national PAMR services in VHF Band III. Offered on a subscription plan with flat monthly charges allowing unlimited calls, PAMR freed radio managers from the complexity and expense of having to procure and maintain their own company radio system. Unlike simple community repeaters or common base stations (CBS), it could also provide multi-site, wide-area service if required, with group calling, simple data messaging and even telephone interconnects. But most of all it eliminated the ‘bill shock’ that could so easily follow when the temptation represented by a cellular phone was placed in the hands of an employee. Since PAMR was based on simplex speech, like traditional two-way radio, users tended to keep their exchanges brief, and so the potential capacity of the radio channel was much increased – a factor that earned favour with the regulator.

Among our articles on trunking was an informative introduction to a next-generation technology that was originally called Mobile Digital Trunked Radio System (MDTRS), but was subsequently called Trans European Trunked Radio [later changing once more to Terrestrial Trunked Radio – Ed], or TETRA. This piece was written by Gary Aitkenhead, who in the 1990s was a senior engineer at Motorola’s European research laboratories in Basingstoke, but in 2018 was suddenly appearing on television screens in a new role as chief executive of the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down.

After four years of effort, he wrote, a draft TETRA standard developed within ETSI was about to be released for public inquiry. But much remained to be settled, including eight of the nine system interfaces earmarked for standardisation and even key elements such as the speech codec. A decision had yet to be made on whether to go ahead with 6.25kHz or 12.5kHz narrowband TETRA options in addition to the four-slot 25kHz TDMA format in use today.

For professional and business radio users, TETRA promised many attractive features not found in other digital radio standards such as GSM and DECT, he argued. But to win commercial success, it would have to be ready on time. In that respect, concern still centred on the need for common type approval and conformance testing across Europe, and for harmonised frequency bands.

For users, the likely cost of TETRA became another significant concern. At an international conference on trunked radio reported in the same issue, a delegate asked why anyone would want simplex voice communication when they could buy a full-duplex GSM phone for a few hundred pounds. “Cost of ownership is really what concerns the user, not the cost of the terminals,” responded Philip Whitehead, of Philips Telecom PMR, a pioneer developer of TETRA technology. He added: “We have to be efficient, and duplex is not an efficient way of working.”

For readers still hazy about the principles of trunking, our back-page feature provided a brief primer on the subject – part of a long-running series by many contributors outlining important topics in radio communications and decoding some of the many three-letter and four-letter abbreviations [we’ve re-published this article in our 25th anniversary supplement – Ed].

Not all of the ETSI radio initiatives launched during these years were crowned with success. Some that failed included Digital Short Range Radio, a low-power simplex and duplex system to operate at 900MHz; ERMES, a two-way paging technology; and the short-lived Terrestrial Flight Telephone Service (TFTS), which relied on a network of ground-based UHF stations to bring voice, email and fax to Europe’s airline passengers.

End of the world
As part of our on-going work to tell the end-user's story, our third issue inFebruary 1994 included a look at Surrey Ambulance Service's use of VHF and UHF (including UHF-VHF repeaters in its incident control vehicles to interconnect the two systems). However, it seemed suddenly that the writing was on the wall for PMR – and perhaps for our magazine. ‘Radio in Peril’ (with the initial letters highlighted in red) was the title of an article in the same issue from the managing director of a communications software company, a 20-year veteran of the PMR/PAMR industry. This, he wrote chillingly, was an obituary: for just as a comet wiped out the dinosaurs, the cellular phone industry was poised to sweep away PMR, PAMR, packet data systems and paging. The only thing stopping it was that it was still too busy expanding its existing markets (subscriber numbers in the UK had just passed the two million mark) [This piece has also been re-published in our 25th anniversary supplement – Ed].

As it turned out, mobile radio continued to grow vigorously, leading to shortages of frequencies in places as the regulator struggled to accommodate applicants for new licences. It’s true that some radio offerings have faded away, such as narrowband wireless packet data networks. Another – wide-area paging – continues to serve specialised users, though no longer on the scale it enjoyed during its brief pre-GSM flowering as a consumer phenomenon, when there were as many as five network brands to choose from. Nonetheless, predictions of the imminent death of PMR have continued to recur since then – and yet somehow it remains.

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Land Mobile is the only monthly publication exclusively dedicated to wireless communications for business. Launched in 1993, this leading industry title provides practical advice, expert opinion and commentary, and insightful, informative, truly authoritative editorial.

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