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“Dad? You know that phone idea you had?”

Paul Withers
January 20, 2015

How Sir Ernest Harrison’s son Michael sparked off a revolution in technology

January 1, 1985. As the clocks struck midnight, and the celebrations began, Michael Harrison (pictured), the son of former Vodafone chairman Sir Ernest Harrison made history by becoming the first person in the UK to make a call using a mobile phone.

“Hi Dad. It’s Mike. This is the first-ever call made on a UK commercial mobile network.”

That historic call, made from One Parliament Square in London to his father in Surrey, was connected using a transportable Vodafone VT1 weighing a staggering 5kg (pictured) – equivalent to 36 iPhone 6 handsets.

Thirty years on, and more than 80 million subscribers in the UK, the impact of that moment continues to be felt.

Life changing

“It now takes me less than an hour to do things that took me a week in 1985,” was the frank message from Vodafone head of corporate and large enterprise David Langhorn.

“In the 1980s, we had a landline, a fax machine, typewriters and a lot of admin resource.

“If you think about what it took then to write a letter and the actual productivity of someone in an office, everything was a lot slower.”


Days after the first call, people gathered at St. Katherine’s Dock in London to watch comedian Ernie Wise make the first public mobile phone call to Vodafone’s headquarters in Newbury, Berkshire, with a handful of employees based in an office above an Indian restaurant.

Wise arrived with the handset on board a 19th century mail coach and wearing a Dickensian costume. He also called Sir Ernest, although there is no record of what was said between the two.

Langhorn, who had an 18 year stint at US operator AT&T before joining Vodafone last October, including seven years as its UK and Ireland sales vice president, remembers the first phone call and the excitement following it well.

“Sales people in the 1980s would go out and see customers and would need to stop off at a service station to make a call from a payphone on the way home to check into the office.”

New competition

Competition increased, with the launch of Cellnet (now O2) on January 7, 1985 – exactly a week after the first call. The adoption of mobile phones was also beginning to take off.

Even before the first call by Harrison, Vodafone had taken more than 2,000 orders, and by the end of 1985, over 12,000 devices had been sold. It also began with 100 base stations and 12,000 customers in the UK, which has now risen to 12,000 base stations, and 19.7 million and 438 million customers in the UK and worldwide respectively.

The first person to buy a mobile in the UK was investment banker Mungo Park, who spent £1,200 (around £3,200 today) on a VM1 Panasonic in-car handset in the first few weeks of 1985. On average, handsets cost around £2,000 in the mid-to-late 1980s – equivalent to around £5,000 today when taking the inflation rate into account.

“Mobile made a huge impact,especially in London, where the early adopters were high-ranking bankers,” says Langhorn. “It matured quickly and was the start of not having anywhere to hide –That was the catalyst for a massive change in the market.”

Evolving market

He says the differences there have been notable in the business market over the past 30 years have been the low cost of starting your own business today and smartphone convergence.

According to PeoplePerHour, which provides websites for the advertisement of freelance work, the cost of starting up a business is £312 – more than 13 times less than the cost of a mobile phone in 1985. In addition, the UK ICT market is now worth £58 billion annually, according to UK Trade & Investment (UKTI).

“Mobiles have been fantastic for the UK economy.

“If you’re a young entrepreneur and want to set up your own business, the price of entry is a lot lower – you don’t have to re-mortgage your house to set up a limited company and can now do it online or on your smartphone.

“The change between what it costs and how much a mobile phone cost in the 1980’s is significant.

“Smartphones and convergence, getting voice and data onto one device and across one network, has been a huge catalyst for growth in the industry. People now expect everything, from voice and data to applications and systems access.

“Today, I can call a customer, text and instant message them, gain access to information about them through analytics and send them quotes – all on one device. I can do that almost at any place and ay any time.

“Employee productivity has gone up by possibly 100 fold in terms of what can be dine on a device in any given hour of the day. There is nowhere to hide, but in a good way.”

Market demands

Langhorn says the biggest comparison he can make from today compared to 30 years ago is the full circle the market has entered from a supply and demand point of view.

In 1985, people found themselves catching up with technology but three decades later it is now the technology firms and mobile operators that are finding themselves in opposite positions, with expectations from businesses fuelling demand for convergence and cloud computing.

“Convergence and cloud computing is an important area within Vodafone’s unified comms strategy, and these are driven by this huge demand for accessing applications on the go.

“Thirty years ago, technology drove the market, so people had to catch up. Businesses had to catch up with technology and think how they could adapt to be more nimble.

“These days you can flip that around the other way.

“If you’re a business as a start-up or a mature and large enterprise, your expectations of Vodafone or any other technology company are increasing all the time. It’s now more about keeping up with business expectations and that just fuels the demand for things like convergence and cloud computing.”

After 30 years of continued innovation both inside and outside of the office, as well as shaping the way consumers live their lives, what is next for the mobile industry?

Whilst this is almost impossible to predict, Langhorn says it is imperative that Vodafone and other technology companies respond to increasing demands from consumers and businesses to invest in faster connectivity.

“The short-term future is about faster speeds and more ubiquitous connectivity.

“Market pressure is driving us to invest more, and we have to respond to that.

“Our spend on network infrastructure last year was approaching £1 billion, and we are looking to spend the same this year, getting deeper in-building coverage and connectivity across the UK landscape to fuel that growth.”

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