Select Committee on Science and Technology Second Report


1.  Future demands for microprocessing will increasingly be for embedded applications — that is, dedicated and often very sophisticated microprocessing technology operating products in ways that are generally invisible to the user. A good example of an embedded application is the mobile phone, the development of which over the last two decades is outlined below.

A brief history of mobile phones

2.  The first generation analogue mobile phone system was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1985, and was called Total Access Communication Technology (TACS). A typical early phone weighed around 5 kg, cost several thousand pounds and had a battery life of less than a day (or one hour's talk time). As this was an analogue system, rather than digital, phones did not require a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) chip. However, the first single-chip DSP had been produced in the late 1970s, making a fully digital system economically viable.

3.  In Europe, a group of 26 national phone companies began developing a digital standard in 1982. Agreed in 1991, the Global System for Mobile communications (GSM) second generation standard was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1992. This standard is used by current UK mobile phones and allows text and data transmission as well as simple voice telephony. By March 2002 there were nearly 700 million GSM customers world-wide[125]. Early GSM phones typically weighed 500g and had around 12 hours of standby battery life. Today, they weigh as little as 60g, have standby times of up to 10 days and talk times of up to five hours.

4.  The next few years will see the introduction of third generation (3G) mobile phones. These will allow higher data rates than GSM, so users can more easily access internet pages or send photographs using their mobile phones. The first 3G networks started in Japan and the Isle of Man in late 2001. 3G poses new challenges for mobile phone processor design, in order to meet these higher data rates and increased functionality while remaining low cost and low power.

5.  Current mobile phones typically contain two processors. A DSP deals with applications such as extracting digitally coded speech from the signal received by the phone and decoding it. A RISC processor (such as those developed by ARM) manages the interfaces with the outside world, including interacting with the mobile phone network and controlling the screen and key pad. These two processors may be integrated onto a single chip.

Points to note

6.  A number of useful points can be illustrated by mobile phones and their use of microprocessors.

a.  It is difficult to predict the future. Nearly 75% of the UK adult population now own a mobile phone[126] and a large proportion of these include embedded processors licensed by ARM, a British company. Twenty years ago, it would have been difficult to predict the growth of the mobile phone market, let alone the major role the United Kingdom would play in embedded processors. Even on shorter time scales, predictions are difficult. For example, in April 2000, the Stewart Report[127] suggested that the number of UK mobile phone subscribers might rise to 45 million within 5 years. This figure was actually reached by early 2002[128]. Similarly, the rise in text messaging was entirely unexpected — but over a billion text messages are now sent each month in the United Kingdom[129].

b.  Mobile phones show how processor requirements vary depending on their application. Their processors must operate at low power (for longer battery life), be small and low cost. Successful embedded processors, therefore, are not necessarily those with the greatest processor speed but those that balance these requirements.

c.  They are a mass market product. So, although embedded processors may not be used for cutting-edge research on specialist supercomputers, they are required in vast numbers for an increasing array of day to day applications. It is these high-volume products which will have most impact on the economy.

d.  They illustrate how developments in the market can be facilitated by, but not necessarily driven by, technology. The rise of second generation mobile phones in Europe is often attributed to European regulation introducing the GSM standard across the continent, rather than specific technological or market attributes.

e.  Finally, mobile phones demonstrate the importance of pleasing the customer. Although mobile phones for voice and text are extremely popular, data services (using Wireless Application Protocol or WAP technology) have been considerably less successful than predicted by operators. Such issues will become more significant with the next (third) generation of mobile phones, which will allow mobile internet access. UK operators paid £22 bn for licences to use the radio spectrum for these 3G mobile phones, but it remains unclear how popular such services are likely to be — and hence, how and over what time scale this investment is to be recouped.

Europe/US differences

7.  It is worth noting that the development of mobile telephony is more advanced in Europe than in the US. This is the result of interacting factors. The early US lead led to substantial investment in first generation analogue networks using a wider range of frequencies than in Europe. The demand for better services that would attract investment in improved infrastructure is, however, constrained by US regulatory requirements which may lead to the person being called bearing a charge for receiving the call (as for international calls within Europe). Consequently, pagers are still widely used in the US[130] where users tend to switch on their mobile phones only when they want to make an outgoing call.

125   GSM Association. Back

126   Oftel, Consumers' use of mobile telephony Q8 February 2002. Back

127   Mobile Phones and Health, Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, Chairman Sir William Stewart. Back

128   Oftel Mobile Market Update, Q4 2001/02 (January to March 2002). Back

129   Oftel Mobile Market Update, Q4 2001/02 (January to March 2002). Back

130   Unlike Europe, where they have been largely superseded by mobile phones. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002