Special Report on Mobile Telecommunications: Communications firms see brighter prospects: In this Special Report, Peter Purton reports on the industry's hopes of moving from a specialist into a mass market

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AFTER a boom in the 1980s when the number of mobile telephones in use in the UK rose twentyfold, the 1990s have found the players in the mobile communications sector with a bit of a hangover.

The last few years have seen the faltering of cellular radio's spectacular growth, the abandonment of telepoint, the curtailment of plans for personal communications networks, and a much lower than expected take-up of 'blue-collar' services which it was once hoped would outperform cellular, such as public access mobile radio and mobile data.

But despite all this, and the economic recession, there are signs that things may at last be looking up. Mobile communications may be about to achieve its dream of turning from a specialist into a mass market.

Cellular radio's decline bottomed out last year when the market, which had become accustomed to growing at 100 per cent a year, grew by only 4 per cent. At the same time, of over 70 service providers which at one time supplied airtime and equpment, only 40 remained. And the margins on equipment sales had dwindled to their lowest ever.

Telepoint, the UK-invented technology which is a cross between home or office cordless telephones and cellular mobile telephones, also saw its nemesis last year when all but one of the four licensed groups pulled out. And that one, BYPS, which had not even launched a service, was bought by a Hong Kong-based paging and mobile communications group, Hutchison.

One of three groups licensed to operate Personal Communications Networks or PCNS, also saw itself acquired by Hutchison before it was able to start a service. Microtel, a joint venture between British Aerospace and the American company Millicom, fell victim to higher than expected investment costs. The same reason caused the other two licensees, Mercury Personal Communications and Unitel Communications, to merge earlier this year.

Public access mobile radio had its British debut in 1988 with the launch of seven national and regional services. With conventional mobile radio, users have to build their own network of radio transmitters. With public access mobile radio, users save money by sharing a radio infrastructure built and maintained by a network operator. They only have to buy or lease their handsets and pay a subscription charge. But public access mobile radio took longer to get going than hoped, leaving cellular to tackle the niche. The result was that the predicted hundreds of thousands of users never materialised. In fact, there are probably fewer than 100,000 users in the UK and the two sector leaders, GEC National One and Band Three Radio, merged earlier this year.

In the field of mobile data, of four companies licensed in 1989, only two, Hutchison Mobile Data and Ram Mobile Data Services, are actually offering a service. Of the other two, Cognito is no more, and Motorola seems to have lost its interest.

Yet both the UK's cellular radio network operators, Cellnet and Vodafone, are reporting improved net growth - the difference between new customers joining the network and others disconnecting.

Vodafone has launched a service based on the pan-European digital GSM communications standard, which already allows customers to use their phones while travelling in Finland and is expected to allow them to take their phones with them throughout Europe by the mid-1990s.

Cellnet, meanwhile, has led the field with new tariffs and services designed to make its existing TACS network more appealing to a wider audience.

Telepoint also began moving again at the end of May when Hutchison launched its service, Rabbit, in Manchester. It hopes to offer full coverage of the UK's main towns and transit routes by the end of the year.

In September Mercury Personal Communications announced it had recruited Motorola as a supplier of PCN handsets and that it was still on target to launch its service by the middle of next year. The announcement came after speculation that PCN would be delayed to 1994. With Motorola, no fewer than three suppliers have been contracted to deliver PCN handsets to Mercury Personal Communications, the other two being NEC and Siemens. PCN's rival, Microtel, is to use handsets from Nokia.

Things are even looking brighter for public access mobile radio. Large customers such as local government and utilities which bought cellular in 1985 are now finding their systems coming up for replacement. With public mobile radio operators not charging for airtime and charging monthly subscriptions of between pounds 10 and pounds 50, many customers are reported to be choosing public access mobile radio, which its supporters say can be 10-20 times more cost-effective than cellular.

One of the biggest problems facing mobile data is the lack of a world-wide standard. There are mobile data services offered by the cellular operators, dedicated mobile data network operators, and data over private mobile radio networks. And all these services are offered over different, largely incompatible technologies.

This problem may also soon be solved. The GSM pan-European mobile telephone standard incorporates a mobile data facility, for example, which will not only let mobile terminals communicate at speeds comparable to the best of today's fixed telephone data links, but is also compatible with the emerging integrated services digital network, or ISDN. And two global groups seem to be forming behind dedicated mobile data technologies from Motorola and Ericsson, which promise to make up, in efficient use of the scarce radio waves, what they lose in fixed network standards compatibility. More or less all in the industry now agree while the 1980s were a time of unprecedented progress in mobile communications, they led to a lot of the problems now. But the sector is settling down to a period of more cautious but - it is hoped - more stable growth.

Peter Purton is editorial director of Telecom Europa, a leading publisher of information on the telecommunications industry.

(Photograph omitted)