Why were the founders of GSM in Cyprus this week? 20 years and 2.3 billion users has a lot to do with it.

Sophia Antipolis, 16th March 2007

This week, many of the major contributors to the success of the GSM Standard have met in Cyprus to attend a Workshop and celebration of the twenty years since the Madeira Decision in February 1987 that set the parameters for a digital Pan-European mobile service, the first step in the creation of a Global success story:

20th Birthday celebrations for Europe's most successful collaborative technology project.

Twenty years ago (in February 1987), a small number of European officials decided to take not one but three giant leaps for Europe's then tiny and fragmented mobile radio industry:

• a mobile radio service that would stretch the length and breadth of Europe
• a leap from the established analogue technology to new digital technology
• a leap from the car to the pocket for the mobile phone itself

The sceptics said that such European agreements would fall apart, that analogue technology was too established and would do a job better and it was impossible to make a digital hand portable that could fit into a pocket (the energy consumption was far too high).

The visionary officials confounded the sceptics. The outcome was Europe's most successful technology project ever - with over 2.3 billion GSM subscriptions sold world wide, travellers able to arrive in over 200 countries and find their mobiles automatically connected to the local mobile telephone service and the digital mobile phone joining the wallet and keys as the items that nobody today leaves home without.

That is not to say that the architects of this huge success got everything right. Their wildest dreams for the size of the GSM market were 10-20 million. But if there was to have been a gross error - then at least 2 billion is a gross error to celebrate.

Another major challenge for GSM was that it was a technology 'designed by a committee'. It took leadership and international cooperation of the highest order to ensure that the inevitable compromises took the best bits of everyone's ideas and not the worst. A state of the art narrow band TDMA solution with 8 full rate channels of 16 kbit/s per carrier frequency was agreed. Sleep mode and slow frequency hopping were added in order to facilitate the support of hand portables. The TDMA also supports half rate channels for future half-rate codecs. Key parameters for the full rate codec were agreed. Principles for data services were established. In this remarkable way, the basic parameters of GSM emerged from the historic meeting in Madeira in February 1987 and a meeting in May 87 in Bonn resolved outstanding issues.

It was also the birth of new working methods for more professional technical standards making in telecommunications, including a full time team, flexible 'working assumptions' around uncertainties, tight change control and controlled releases.

In Cyprus this week, under the auspices of some major telecom operators, vendors and ETSI, the architects of the GSM success story presented papers at a conference to mark the 20th birthday of the GSM technology. It was a timely review. GSM itself is still a rising technology. The 3G technology has at last caught up with its vision with the introduction of the HSDPA up-grade path to 14.4 Mb/s data speeds and the next generation of mobile technology offering even dizzier data speeds is coming within vision of the standards bodies.


To some extent, the GSM success was a product of its historic political period - engineers and not economists led Europe's telecommunications future - there was a passionate commitment to the European ideal of the single market and the term 'technology neutrality' for governments and regulators had not yet been invented.

Stressed at the conference as 'timeless lessons for the future' were:

• the need to define the commercial goals ahead of picking the technology,
• the importance of open 'inclusive' standards making (building on the ETSI model),
• the need for common spectrum to be available across all markets,
• the power of network operator and industry collaboration behind a single technical standard,
• a willingness to share technology (fair and reasonable IPR terms) and
• the importance of 'timing' for the introduction of a new generation of technology.

The guest speakers at the conference foresee over 'the next 20 years' that:

• The mobile market will move towards a converged mix of technologies - where individual technologies both compete and complement each other rather than a newer technology entirely displacing an existing one
• Mature markets like Europe would be positioning GSM to serve millions of light phone users, machine-to-machine applications, fashion phones and rural use
• Additional value added opportunities would arise for GSM phones from the combination of larger memory SIMs together with Near Field Communications and cameras (reading bar codes)
• 3G will fully deliver on its multi-media promise with the coming of HSDPA/HSUPA and gaining considerable ground in terms of new countries embracing the technology
• Completely new technologies will enter the mix of technologies offering even higher mobile data rates but over more geographically limited areas.
As GSM technology continues to expand, it is highly likely to be around to celebrate its 40th birthday. Those attending this week in Cyprus will try to do the same.

The Workshop presentations are on-line at http://www.3gpp.org/ftp/workshop/


Notes to editors

The Workshop has been organized by Armin Toepfer on behalf of the sponsors Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Giesecke & Devrient, Hutchison 3G, Nokia Corporation, Siemens Networks, Orange, SFR, TeliaSonera, T-Mobile, Vodafone, in co-operation with ETSI. 

About the author

Armin Toepfer is Head of International Standards for Vodafone D2 GmbH and serves as Vice Chair in 3GPPTM Service and System Aspects Group and Vice Chair of the ETSI General Assembly.

About 3GPP

Details about work of The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPPTM) are at http://www.3gpp.org/

3GPPTM is a collaboration of telecommunications standards bodies. The current Organizational Partners are ARIB, CCSA, ETSI, ATIS, TTA, and TTC.

The establishment of 3GPPTM was formalized in December 1998 by the signing of the 'The 3rd Generation Partnership Project Agreement'.

The original scope of 3GPPTM was to produce globally applicable Technical Specifications and Technical Reports for a 3rd Generation Mobile System based on evolved GSM core networks and the radio access technologies that they support. The scope was subsequently amended to include the maintenance and development of the Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) Technical Specifications and Technical Reports including evolved radio access technologies (e.g. General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) and Enhanced Data rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE)).

A permanent project support group called the 'Mobile Competence Centre (MCC)' has been established to ensure the efficient day to day running of 3GPP. The MCC is based at the ETSI headquarters in Sophia Antipolis, France.

About ETSI

ETSI unites over 650 members from 61 countries, including manufacturers, network operators, administrations, service providers, research bodies and users - in fact, all the key players in the ICT Standards arena.

For more information: http://www.etsi.org/.

For further information about this news release, please contact:

Kevin FLYNN,
ETSI Press co-ordinator
Tel: +33 (0)4 92 94 42 58
E-mail: [email protected]