Vodafone Celebrates 30 Years Since First U.K. Mobile Phone Call

How did Vodafone beat BT and build the network that supported the UK's first mobile phone call?

mobile phone

By Steve McCaskill

The start of 2015 marks the 30th anniversary of the first mobile phone call ever made in the U.K., changing the way people and businesses communicate.

Two companies, the monopolistic BT, which operated the Cellnet joint-venture with Securicor, and the newcomer Vodafone, had been awarded spectrum licenses to offer mobile services, but it was the younger firm that was able to make the first call on January 1, 1985.

Michael Harrison, son of Vodafone chairman Sir Ernest Harrison, left the family's New Year's Eve party in Surrey and drove to London to make the call using a Vodafone Transportable VT1 phone from Parliament Square.

"Hi Dad, it's Mike. Happy New Year. This is the first ever call on a U.K. mobile network," were the first words uttered on the Vodafone network, with comedian Ernie Wise making another call later that day from St Katherine's Dock in the capital to the operator's headquarters in Newbury.

David vs. Goliath

The call was not the first in the world, but it helped establish the U.K. as a mobile nation.

"The mobile phone had emerged in America, the Scandinavian Nordic Mobile Telephone System had launched earlier, so that phone call was not a global first, but it was important for the U.K. because it put the U.K. telecoms industry firmly in the mobile sector," said Nigel Linge, professor of telecommunications at the University of Salford.

BT, which part-owned Cellnet, followed suit a few days later, but Vodafone was pleased with being first to the punch, given the difference in size between the two companies. Vodafone was formed by Racal, a company that specialized in military radio technology, and had very little experience in telecommunications.

"It just felt like BT was Goliath and we were a very small David,” Mike Pinches, Vodafone's first technical director told TechWeekEurope. He was one of Vodafone's first five employees and was responsible for designing and planning the network infrastructure.

"You have to remember the political climate at the time. British Telecom (BT) was a monopoly and Margaret Thatcher's government had decided it was time to try and break up the monopolies and introduce competition.

"Mobile telephony was one of the platforms for doing that, so the government decided to grant a license almost automatically to BT and in 1982 they launched a competition for a second cellular license. The Racal bid, which eventually became Vodafone, was selected."

Building the Network

The government had allocated two blocks of adjacent spectrum for the two license winners. This bandwidth was free of charge, but as a condition of the license, the two parties had to ensure their systems were interoperable.

"One day one we sat down with what became Cellnet to agree what technology we were going to use, because we couldn't buy any equipment until then," he explained. "Having created this competition, the first thing we were told to do was to sit down together!"