From murder most foul to Integrated Services Digital Network and 3G, January, February and March have seen some extraordinary highlights in the telecommunications world, says Professor Nigel Linge.
On 1 January 1845 John Tawell entered a chemist’s shop and bought some Scheele’s Acid, a treatment for varicose veins that contained hydrogen cyanide. He travelled to Salt Hill near Slough where he met his mistress, Sarah Hart, whom he then proceeded to poison with the acid. Sarah’s screams and cries for help were heard by a neighbour but John ran off and made his way to Slough railway station where he boarded the 7:42pm train to London Paddington. Unfortunately for John, Slough and Paddington stations had been fitted with a Cooke-Wheatstone two needle electric telegraph system.
Sarah Hart’s neighbour raised the alarm and the local vicar pursued John to the station where he asked the Station Master to signal ahead to Paddington and alert the Police. However, the telegraph system could not send the letters J, Q or Z which created problems because the vicar said that John was dressed like a Quaker! The word Quaker had to be sent as Kwaker which caused the telegraph operator at Paddington great consternation in understanding it; even after retransmission. Eventually the message was handed to Sergeant William Williams who was given the task of tracking down and arresting John. At his trial, The Times newspaper reported that, ‘Had it not been for the efficient aid of the electric telegraph, both at Slough and Paddington, the greatest difficulty, as well as delay, would have occurred in the apprehension’. John Tawell was hanged at 8am on Friday 28 March 1845 and thereafter became known as ‘The Man Hanged by the Electric Telegraph’.
The electric telegraph was the country’s – and the world’s – first data network. Of course data in that sense was the written telegram and the network never reached into our homes. However, with the emergence of the home computer and our onward drive towards digitisation came a demand for public data networks for both business and domestic consumers. In response to this on 7 February 1991, BT launched their Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) service. Originally developed in 1988 by the CCITT (ITU), ISDN provided a digital connection comprising two symmetric bi-directional data channels (2B) each operating at 64kbit/s and a 16kbit/s signalling channel (D). This basic rate 2B+D service offered much higher data rates over its competitor technologies and proved especially popular with the broadcasting industry where the guaranteed data rate with its low latency was ideal for high quality voice and music transmission.
BT developed and marketed its ISDN service as Home Highway but in 2007, withdrew it from domestic customers because of the rise in the popularity and capability of xDSL broadband access. As of 2013 there were still 3.2 million ISDN lines in the UK but this number is falling year on year. Within Europe, ISDN was most popular in Germany where at one point they accounted for 20% of the global market.
Delivering data into the palm of your hand offered a different challenge but took an important step forward on 3 March 2003 when the first mobile network to offer a 3G service was launched in the UK by a new entrant into the mobile marketplace. Telesystem International Wireless (TIW) UMTS (UK) Limited had the backing of Hong Kong based Hutchison Whampoa but soon Hutchison bought out TIW to create H3G UK Limited which, having acquired spectrum from the infamous UK 3G auction, marketed its new service under the more familiar ‘Three’ brand. Choosing to launch their service on 3/3/3 was therefore an opportunity not to be missed! Quite how much network coverage was available at that time remains a point of conjecture. Nevertheless, the UK had entered the 3G world with the first public 3G call being made by Trade and Industry Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, who called Stephen Timms, Minister for e-Commerce.
The move to 3G brought with it the promise of higher data rates and at the time of launch, Three offered its customers a choice of three different handset options, the Motorola A830, NEC e606 and NEC e808. As is often the case, these first generation handsets were actually poorer than their predecessor technology being bulkier and suffering from poor battery life. That aside, by August 2004, Three has connected one million customers.