A Brief History of Telecommunication
Horses via Trains to Satellites
In the first two articles we took a quick look at how telephone networks were born and developed over the last 140 years. So now we have an outline of the story we are following, it's time to delve a little deeper.
Alexander Graham Bell was a prolific inventor who along with the telephone was also responsible for the metal detector and the first working hydrofoil boat. His work included research into magnetic field recording; which led to tape recorders and floppy discs. He also studied alternative fuels with both methane and solar panels being considered. Bell formed the Bell Telephone Company with his father-in-law in 1877 and this company later became the American Bell Telephone Company, and finally the American Telephone and Telegraph Company -who are now one of the US's largest Telco’s and are beginning to roll out near 4G networks along with Verizon and Sprint amongst others.
Since the 1850's, Western Union had been growing their telegraph system across the US but in 1879 they lost a patent lawsuit against the Bell company and withdrew from the telephone market to concentrate on money transfer, which is still its primary business. By 1900 Western Union owned and operated a million miles of copper cable across the world and by the 1970's were the first American Telco to have their own satellite network called Westar. This satellite capability was leased to other firms for the transmission of voice, video and data.
The simplest way to think of a network is to imagine a tree, with its trunk, branches, twigs and then leaves being the individual users. The trunk is the major transatlantic or international connection, the branches run from there to larger cities and the twigs run to your local exchange where your leaf is reached by it's stem.
Much of the early expansion of the copper wire networks was done in conjunction with railway companies who also needed the ability to send messages about their traffic down the lines to subsequent stations. In America this meant that the networks were in the hands of private companies; but in Europe much of these infrastructures were, and often still are, government controlled and owned.
General Post Office logo
In the UK the telephone system was developed by the General Post Office which was established in 1660 by King Charles II as a postal company using horses to transport messages. It was known as Royal Mail because it was built for the distribution of Royal and Government documents. This system was copied as a privately owned business in the US and became the Pony Express company, which Western Union made redundant with their copper cable telegraph network from the 1850's onward. In the UK, Bell demoed his telephone to Queen Victoria in January 1878, and in June set-up The Telephone Company to market his inventions here.
Edward VII post box & Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's phone box
In the mid 19th century there were 13 licensed private telegraph companies in the UK, however the 1869 Telegraph Act gave the GPO power to buy up and control these companies as it claimed monopoly rights over the delivery from "a sender to a receiver" based on the delivery system of paper mail. This theory and Act gave the state control over every form of electronic communication, on the basis that every sender was using the GPO's model of distribution and that the systems were seen as being "electronic post offices".
The sole surviving company from the 1912 GPO takeover of the UK's Telco’s is KCOM, formerly Kingston Communications from Kingston upon Hull in Yorkshire. They have been operating since 1902 and opened their first exchange in 1904. As KC are the only operator in the area many residents are unhappy with the monopoly that KC have and this was referred to the European Commission in August 2007 by the local MEP Diana Wallis although no action was taken. This was backed up by Ofcom in May 2008 in the 'Review of the wholesale broadband access markets' which determined that KC was not acting in any way that would keep out rival companies.
As the 1912 takeovers were licensed by Royal Charter the GPO kept their monopoly over all communication into, within and out of the British Isles. This monopoly meant that the GPO also ran the necessary systems for the Government and Military; for example being responsible for RAF Fighter Command throughout World War two and the Battle of Britain. This "send & receive" model ran into trouble with the invention of wireless telephone broadcast, as the basis of broadcast is distribution to many, however government again legislated in favour of the GPO and this meant that all early radio and television broadcast was under the GPO's regulation.
In 1922 all of the UK's electrical communication manufacturers were bundled together by the GPO to create and licence a single entity as the British Broadcasting Company, this existed for five years and was dissolved when a new Royal Charter created the British Broadcasting Corporation who we still know as the BBC today.
The BBC coat of arms
After the 2nd world war the control over radio regulations was spun out and given to the Independent Broadcasting Authority, later to become Ofcom, who are still the body in charge of radio and mobile telephone regulation today. After the war, the explosion in demand for phone services put enormous strain on a network that had suffered huge damage over the preceding years, and this led to the development of automatic switching systems which removed the physical need for an operator to manually connect calls.
In the late 1950's the new automatic switches allowed STD 'subscriber trunk dialling' which lets individual users dial without the need for an operator. It was first used in the UK on 5.12.58 by the Queen who called Edinburgh from Bristol, and it took a further 20 years to complete the full countrywide installation. This STD gave rise to the area codes we are now so familiar with, i.e. the 01 and 02 numbers for landlines and 07 for mobiles, and also allowed for the first time automated international calls.
In 1969 the GPO was transferred by another Royal Charter into a Statutory Corporation and responsibility for telecoms was given to Post Office Telecommunications, and in 1975 the GPO dropped General from its name to become simply the Post Office. In 1981 the British Telecommunications Act split the corporation further forming British Telecommunications plc to run the phone business leaving the Post Office to run mail, parcels, Post Office Counters (the shops) and the National Girobank business.
BT logo 1980 - 1991
1984 saw British Telecommunications plc privatised and the Post Office transferred to Royal Mail Holdings plc, with the government keeping control of as the sole shareholder in RMH and its Post Office Ltd subsidiary. The Girobank business was sold to Alliance & Leicester, later Santander, in 1990 and in 2007 the government formally abolished the Post Office.
Cellnet was launched in 1985, the second UK mobile company after Vodafone. It was a 60 / 40 split joint venture between BT and Securicor, and in 1999 BT took full control and rebranded as BT Cellnet. In 2001 BT shareholders voted to de-merge the company and it was re-launched on May the first 2002 as O2. There was a complete reorganisation in 2005 which de-listed O2 from the London Stock Exchange and a new company O2 plc emerged and it is them who we know today, under Telefonica, as giffgaff's parent.
Thank you for reading and personal thanks to ianibbetson for particular points about Kcom.
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