There must have been an eyebrow or two raised at our bald contention in CI No 983 that Telepoint promised to be the most important development in speech communications since the introduction of the telephone itself – but the main reason that brows furrowed will have simply been that the concept has had almost no serious discussion in the public prints. Talk to an American telecommunications guru about phone zones and zone phones and he like as not wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about. Over here the Financial Times has run the odd brief uncomprehending story, and the subject has had an occasional passing mention in the other national dailies, most of the coverage being generated by Ferranti International Signal Plc’s trumpeting of the benefits it could bring to the Manchester company if only Ferranti and its part-owned partner Libera can get a licence to install the phone points and operate a service.
Vandalised What is so special about the system? The concept is of a pocket telephone that will cost no more than UKP150 or so – perhaps as little as UKP50, British Telecom has reportedly suggested. Just like today’s cordless telephones, it will operate within a radius of a few hundred feet of a very low power radio transmitter receiver – but the key extension to the idea of the home cordless phone is that it is intended that phone-points – the radio transmitter-receivers – should be installed in public places all round the country, so that instead of making a call from a fixed – and frequently vandalised – payphone, you would simply get in range of a phone-point and make your call. Ini.cw 8 tially it is likely that the phones will be able only to initiate calls, not receive them – but it is equally likely that they will very soon, if not from Day One, include a pager receiver, so that the user can be alerted that someone, somewhere – whose number shows up on a liquid crystal display on the phone – is anxious to receive a call. Isn’t all that and more available from the present cellular networks? Yes, but the phones have to be stuffed with so much electronics because the size of the cells and therefore the distance over which they must receive – and more importantly, transmit – is so much wider than with the phone-point concept. As a result, the cheapest cellular phones are around UKP1,000, and the truly portable ones are still bulky, and are significantly more expensive than the ones that are designed solely for installation in cars. Another potential advantage of the Telepoint concept is that it greatly reduces the cost of serving remote rural areas, with local service and telephone kiosks – something that British Telecommunications Plc regards as an unreasonably onerous burden, since it is not at present imposed on its new pay-phone rival Mercury Communications.
Free competition Instead of wiring each home in a remote community, and having all the problems of trying to get there when a line gets blown down or someone’s phone is out of order, how much easier and cheaper to set up a microwave tower for the community and run a series of Telepoints from it. Apart from the maintenance problems, it would mean that there would be no need for people to trail out into the middle of nowhere just to empty coinboxes – it would be cheaper for British Telecom to give a phone to every household and abandon the phone box to the weeds and the vandals. But that in itself raises a problem since it presupposes that British Telecom will get one of the two – and maybe four Telepoint licences to be offered in the UK. Perhaps it will have to – in which case it will hardly be fair to deprive Mercury of one two. But Racal Electronics Plc would argue strongly that neither should get one – rather that there should be free and open competition between terrestrial and radio telecommunications, with British Telecom and Mercury remaining firmly earth- and cable-bound while a new generation of operators, led of course by Vodafone, offers a complete alternative to the fixed terrestrial network via a combination of cellular telephony and the
very-low-power Telepoint. And if the Department of Trade & Industry really is committed to free competition and to maximising choice, it should follow the route proposed by Vodafone. Vodafone, not surprisingly, is also a little nervous about the new technology, because it could severely crimp the future growth of cellular telephony once the market for car telephones is saturated. Who else is in the running for a licence? Ferranti International Signal Plc and its partners in Libera have made so much of the running so far that it would seem no more than natural justice that Ferranti should get one – and there is a case for a paging company becoming involved to add a two-way dimension to the phones. STC Plc has been working on the design of a Cordless Telephone 2 – CT 2 phone on behalf of British Telecom, but it is not certain whether the company wants itself to be an operator.
Pitch hard There’s a queue of companies wanting to make the phones, radio points and other equipment, not least GEC Plessey Telecommunications and the Orbitel Mobile Communications joint venture between Racal and Plessey. It is likely that GEC Plc, envious of Racal’s runaway success with Vodafone, would pitch hard for a Telepoint licence this time, and Plessey Co Plc is likely to be interested too. Sir Clive Sinclair’s Shay Communications Ltd is determined to manufacture phones, and Philips NV is also said to be interested, likely on the manufacturing side, although possibly as an operator too. But before anything firm can happen, the Department of Trade & Industry has to settle on a standard, and there is a frantic campaign under way on the continent to push a much simpler standard than the UK is working towards, in a desperate effort to scupper the UK lead in the technology. But any such efforts have to be resisted at all costs, even if it means the UK going ahead before a common standard is agreed: the potential benefits of Telepoint are so patently obvious, not least for cheaper overall telecommunications, and the potential for exporting the technology to sparsely populated countries is so great that the UK cannot afford to wait for the obstructive continental PTTs who may well feel threatened by the technology – to come to an agreement in two or three years. Even if we ultimately have to switch to a new standard, the benefits of the concept in the meantime make it worth going ahead: the promise of the pan European digital cellular network has not prevented anyone who needed a cellular phone from buying one of the present generation of analogue ones. The Department of Trade & Industry set the end of this year as a target date to start trying out a live system, and it should stick to its guns.