Whilst on holiday in the Canary Islands, topping up on sun with the family, my phone rang. Being the meany that I am and not wanting to pay roaming charges, I hurriedly told the caller I was on holiday and abroad and could they call back next week.
It turned out the call was from a producer at the BBC who is making a series for Radio 4 on the development of the mobile phone, to be narrated by Stephen Fry. We switched communication to email (isn’t free WiFi wonderful?) and by the end of the week I’d agreed to take part in the programme, to be interviewed for a half-hour or so on historical reminiscences. So the very next week, whilst the rest of the family headed for the Natural History Museum, I went off to Bush House for my interview, or chat.
Bush House is, of course, the home of the BBC World Service, but also home to technology programme Digital Planet (now renamed Click) and the sister TV programme, also called Click. I’ve been a casual listener to the Digital Planet podcast for some while, although less frequently of late since I no longer drive to work. It’s curious that the BBC hides all its technology programmes on the World Service and podcasts, and that none of this material reaches the regular broadcast listener or viewer.
Anyway, the programme for which they wanted me is to be on a regular broadcast channel, the home of Stephen Fry, Radio 4.
Once the producer (Anna) and I were sat comfortably in the studio we had a far-back ranging conversation about mobile phone development. She was particularly interested in the very early days of mobile in the UK, pre-cellular and even pre-automatic. From what I can gather there was little difficulty finding people to talk about GSM, 3G, UMTS, and even TACS. Indeed, a good friend of mine from O2, and some former Voda colleagues had all already graced the BBC microphone. But BT Radiophone System 3 and System 4 were so long ago that people who can talk about them must be few and far between. The Outsider cannot claim to have been directly involved in all that was covered, but managed to bluff through with (hopefully) enough anecdotes to satisfy the editors. I can at least lay claim to having a Philips System 4 mobile (made by TeKaDe) in my car for a while, and also to using a
Stornomatic 900 mounted on a block of wood in a couple of hire cars when on trips around the country. When you consider that there was not one microprocessor in these mobiles, and only one in the network equipment (and that only handled billing), it worked remarkably well. Of course, radio coverage of each base station was large, capacity was small, and there was no need for complex hand-off of calls from cell to cell. So the technology was much simpler than is needed in today’s high capacity, multi-purpose networks. But at least you could understand what was going on!
So come the autumn, listen out for the Outsider on the mobile phone programme. See if you can spot which bits are genuine experiences! And no, I didn’t get to meet Mr Fry.