Looking at telecoms software, then and now

Dave Millett, founder of Equinox, discusses the changing landscape of the telecommunication industry. 

Over the 40 years, I’ve been in the telecoms industry a lot has changed, including the pace of change! And I have no doubt that there are plenty more changes on the horizon.

Back 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 and it was still 10 years before Tim Berners-Lee would conceive the internet.

Even basic telecoms software 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.

So how have we got to where we are today?

In 1985 Cellnet and Vodafone, two rival operators, launched Britain’s first cellular telephone service. Cellnet was partly owned by BT who rather short-sightedly sold it and then spent £12.5 billion in 2015 to buy its way back into the market.

The UK was actually ahead of France and Germany in launching this telecoms software, as it often was in those days.  Unfortunately, we’ve lost that lead and are now lagging a long way behind.

Four years later British scientist Tim Berners Lee, while working at CERN, wrote down his ideas for the web and followed that up a year later 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 didn’t capitalise on it and Orbitel ultimately ended up being part of Ericsson.

It was another Brit in 1992 who 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 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 (2007) became VoIP became prevalent enough for Ofcom to feel the need to publish “Regulation of VoIP Services” – which is still available online to read.

In the meantime, Japan launched the world’s first commercial 3G network on 1st October 2001. The technology would not be available in the UK until 2003 and still hasn’t reached some parts today. In 2002, Nokia launched the first ever camera phone in Europe, and Skype was born. 2002 was also the start of the decline in international call revenues for operators.

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 between the UK and the leading tech countries, we had to wait almost three years before EE launched 4G in 11 cities in October 2012.

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

Governments began making broadband promises; most of which totally underestimated the growth of the digital age and the inadequacy of the current plans. This started with the Labour government in 2009, promising that all UK homes would receive 2mbps broadband by 2012. Two years later the coalition government changed that to 90% 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. Fifteen percent of business connections are now VoIP and SIP has overtaken ISDN as a means of connecting PBXs. WhatsApp has over 1 billion users worldwide and the number of text messages has fallen by half since its peak.

What does the future hold for telecoms software?

As we become more familiar with virtual assistants such as Alexa and Siri we’re beginning to see the end of the keyboard altogether. The growth of AI within the device is likely to make devices more intuitive and able to anticipate our needs.

Keyboards on smartphones disappeared with the demise of the Blackberry, and future devices could be more like a piece of glass.EnvironmentalTechnology company, Corning, is already developing the embedding of circuitry within Gorilla glass which could lead to a transparent flat, and even flexible, indestructible device.

Samsung has recently announced that foldable devices are coming. These will allow users to unfold their phone to create a bigger screen when showing information to friends or business colleagues, and then collapse it back again for personal use.

Devices will not only give you the ability to view videos, but will also give you the ability to project them, and link them into augmented reality (AR). Imagine looking at a sofa online or in a shop and being able to see a 3D image of what it would look like in your lounge.

Whilst video calling has been around for a while the next step will likely be the ability for the device to project a 3D hologram of the person you are talking to, making it appear as though you are having a real face-to-face conversation. In doing so you will be able to see their facial expressions and body language. This will also assist in the security of the devices.

But, for these technologies to become real and for us to benefit from them we need the appropriate underlying infrastructure. And, right now, the UK is lagging far, far behind – and slipping further all the time.

In February 2018, BT confirmed that it will be spending at least £3bn to roll out FTTP broadband in the UK by 2020. Even if they meet their target (and their track record is hardly encouraging) the UK will still only reach the level that 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 advances in technology, are already at the high 80% level. We are just starting the first trial of 5G in one city, whereas Japan plans to launch it commercially in 2020.

In South Korea, the three mobile operators have combined forces 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 we see Vodafone and BT and other operators joining forces?

So, what have the last 40 years taught us?

Firstly, despite having invented many of the technologies we now take for granted, the UK has failed to exploit them.

Secondly, various governments, of all political colours, have made promises to improve our infrastructure and consistently failed to do so. And although they have announced future plans, the dates are so far in the future that at least two elections will be fought beforehand.

So, who knows if these targets will ever be met?

Without a doubt, we are becoming more and more dependent on our handheld devices – but we may find we are able to use them for fewer activities and in fewer places than users in many other countries.

 

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