The Origins of DECT

If you google DECT and search for the origins of this global standard for low power digital wireless technology, then you may find some references starting in the late 1980’s or early 1990’s. What has never been published is how the DECT technology was really established and how it came to become the European, and now global, standard. Until now.

It all started back in the autumn of 1983, when I started to work for Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications supplier. Ericsson headhunted me away from one of their competitors, Tateco AB, another Swedish company. I had been working for Tateco, based in Gothenburg, since 1977, first as their Export Manager and finally as CEO from 1980. At Tateco we had been causing Ericsson some headaches as we continually took market share from them in many of their key markets. The products we were selling were private radio paging systems, which at the time had been around for more than 30 years.

I was sitting in my new Ericsson office in Stockholm one late afternoon in November of 1983, just three months after joining the company. My Technical Director, Dag Åkeberg, knocked on my door and asked if he could speak with me for a few minutes. With him he had a stack of papers. At Ericsson, I was in charge of their radio paging business which in Europe was a product used to find employees when they had left their office and could not be reached by phone. Dag, a brilliant engineer, told me he had this idea of creating office phones cordless, making paging virtually extinct. Employees would simple take their phones with them so they could be reached at all times. This idea sounds today very simple but in 1983 it was technically not possible.

To eliminate a detailed technical explanation, it suffices to say here that Dag’s idea at the time was not technical possible. It would require years of research and development. His problem was he was not able to find any way at Ericsson to finance his project. He spent the rest of the afternoon and evening explaining to me how this was going to work. I am not an engineer but I immediately saw the potential of his idea and we agreed to look into it further. There was no money in any budget to do any further investigation but we agreed to get some outside help. He approached the Swedish Post and Telecommunications company (Televerket) and asked them if they were able to validate (with their advanced computers) some of the assumptions he had made in his new concept.

I was busy doing the job Ericsson had employed me to do and that was to integrate their radio paging operations into a profitable business. At the time is was one of their worst business units from a profit point of view. An important decision (also for DECT) was the move I made to close down my Swedish radio paging operations and move everything to Holland. The paging business unit (RPAG) started to become extremely profitable after just a couple of years and in fact, on terms of percentages, became one of the most profitable units within the company. Being profitable, small and located in Holland, gave me an enormous amount of freedom.

Our “DECT Project” started to move from theory into a phase of validation. This meant spending some money and effort internally. Our project was named “DCT900” and it gradually became a formal project in my budget, but it was still small and I buried the costs into my paging profits so that Ericsson didn’t see it. Ericsson was going through some tough times financially and the then CEO, Björn Svedberg, was not allowing any R&D investments that would not result in revenue within 12 months. In fact, I was at a business unit management meeting in Stockholm with Åkeberg in 1985 and we both had to bite our tongues as Björn Svedberg laid out the rules. Our DCT900 project had turned into a real “skunk works”.

We started to allocate resources in Holland towards the new project after all the validations showed that the technology could work. We knew that the actual products were probably not feasible for a number of years as the components needed for the powerful, intelligent handsets were not available. The combination of processing power, cost and the energy needed to drive these components were still a challenge. On the other hand we knew by this time (1985) that the concept would work and would provide a powerful development in the mobile communications industry.

During this period a discussion had started about setting a European standard for digital cordless phones. CEPT had formed a technical committee to look into the idea and come up with a proposal. At the time the British had been developing their own cordless products for a “Telepoint” service. The technology had been named CT2 and had been proposed as the best solution for the new standard. By this time we were further down the road with DCT900 and knew that it was a much better solution than CT2. The problem was the Brits were at the point when they could soon demonstrate working handsets, even though they did not fulfill all the CEPT requirements.

This CEPT working group spent more than two years trying to figure out which proposal was best. This work continued for a period of nearly two years. The British contingent (British Post Office, The Bundespost, France Telecom etc.) knew full well that the Swedish contingent (Swedish Televerket, the Dutch Post Office, the Danes, the Norwegians) had the better solution but their CT-2 technology, although inferior, was much closer to a final product. Moreover, their “Telepoint” concept had gained some acceptance in their key markets. At this point there was a CEPT technical committee meeting planned in the summer of 1986 in Lund, Sweden, where the discussion would probably reach a climax. By this time we had verified that the DCT-900 technology really worked and we had our first working breadboards.

This was the key meeting for the new DECT standard as the CT-2 supporters continued their blocking of any acceptance of our proposal. We had mounted our breadboards into a rucksack so that the concept of “mobility” could be demonstrated. The CEPT members were able to experience the voice quality and the all important simultaneous “hand-off” feature. The Brits showed off their finished handsets in hotel rooms and put on an impressive performance. But at the technical meeting unanimity was required for anything to be accepted. The Italian chairman became frustrated at the continued lack of progress and suddenly adjourned the meeting and ordered the British and the Swedish contingents to come to some sort of agreement before he would reconvene.

Then the improbable happened. In the hotel bar, the parties met to discuss the issue and after some time the Brits came up with a proposal. The new DECT standard had been planned at 900 MHz even though some countries, especially the French, had some issues with this choice. The Brits proposed that to solve these issues, DECT should be allocated to frequencies in the 1.2 – 1.3 GHz band. They had calculated that there were still no commercially available components at these levels, which would give them a chance to get the CT-2 concept adopted by CEPT as an interim standard, giving their domestic manufacturers a chance to recoup their investment. As far as we were concerned, we knew that our products were still a few years away anyway although I had personally visited the military product division within Ericsson to have a clear picture how far off we were.

So after two years of infighting, the solution was agreed upon over a beer and a sandwich, was proposed at the technical meeting and was accepted. What the Brits had not calculated on was the responsibility for the European telecommunications standardization process was soon after taken away from CEPT and placed under ETSI (European Telecommunications Standards Institute). This created yet another delay in them getting the CT-2 interim standard accepted. In the meantime I had already named our solution CT-3 and launched a massive campaign promoting it as the final solution. ETSI created a technical working group based out of Nice to develop the final DECT (CT-3) standard. What many people never realized was that the chairman and leader of this group was Dag Åkeberg, whom we placed there to make sure there was not so much deviation in the final standard from our own CT-3 solution, thus protecting our investment.

The CT-3 (DCT-900) product had gained such a momentum that it had to become a recognized project within the Ericsson Group. The necessary digital radio center within Ericsson was in Lund in Sweden and we needed that resource to finish the development of the handsets. At the time GSM had emerged as the digital future for cellular systems and Ericsson had employed a number of top digital radio engineers from Lund University for their GSM products. Unfortunately for this GSM group, ETSI had not completed their GSM standardization work so that these new engineers had nothing to do. At this point I stepped in and sent a group of Dutch engineers from Holland to the Ericsson facility in Lund and employed these Swedish “GSM” engineers in our CT-3 project. The team leader of this group was Ge Klein Wolterink, a Dutch engineer who came originally from our paging division. This was opportune for us and a saving grace for the Ericsson GSM project.

In the meantime, Dag Akeberg completed his work in Nice and the proposed DECT standard emerged. It was finally adopted in 1992 by ETSI and the rest is now history. DECT products can be found in every corner of the world, either as domestic cordless telephones or advanced local telephone networks in developing countries. It has become a global standard and has met all of the hopes and aspirations we had back in the mid 80’s, when it was still a skunk works in our radio paging business unit in Holland. Of course, we found later many supporters in other countries and companies who also helped defeat CT-2 and make sure DECT became what it is now. But without our foresight, determination and willingness to put everything on the line, none of this would have happened.

At a later date I will go into more detail what we undertook to make sure that CT-3 was in the forefront of the discussion. In the face of opposition from some of the most powerful forces in the telecommunications industry in Europe, we were able by hook and by crook to hold our own. This in itself is not something that anyone really understood. The only reference one can find is in “The Ericsson Chronicle” which celebrated the 125 anniversary of the company. Here it states “A smart move was made when Colin Buckingham christened the new system CT-3”. Of course, nobody at Ericsson, until today, really knew what actually happened. This is the point of this article. More to follow.

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