Going mobile: Ten years of the iPhone

22 August 2017

Interview with

Professor Joe McGeehan, Bristol University

It’s now ten years since the launch of the first iPhone. One of the pioneers who led the way in mobile communications is Professor Joe McGeehan, based at the University of Bristol. You might not be familiar with his name but the technology he helped to develop still plays an essential role in wireless communication devices today including, of course, the iPhone. Jane Reck has been taking a look at Joe’s contribution to research in communications which takes us back to the 1970s.

Jane - From mobile phone networks to secure scrambling communications systems for the police…

Joe - I’ve always been intrigued by big problems.

Jane - Professor Joe McGeehan’s research in microelectronics has played a major role in the development of wireless mobile communications….

Joe - I had not preconceived ideas about what might works and what might not work.

Jane - From wifi, 3G and 4G, to smart antennas that can send and receive many signals simultaneously. Today, Joe is Emeritus Professor of Communications Engineering at the University of Bristol and Senior General Advisor to the Toshiba Corporation.

However, in the early stages of his career back in the 1970s, mobile communications was barely recognised as a field of research…

Joe - When I started a mobile radio I had a very simple vision, and that was that everybody one day would have and own a mobile phone. Most people thought I was slightly mad and certainly, even those in the field, when I was looking at things such as 3G for transmitting video and so on, even then they still felt that proposals such as that were crazy.

Jane - What started things off in the 1970s was a small grant, under £10,000, from the Science Research Council, now known as the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council. Joe’s early exploratory research at the University of Bath, then Bristol, helped pave the way for the wireless mobile communications we all take for granted today…

Joe - If you take a normal mobile radio system, you have a transmitter on a hilltop or on top of a building. You would transmit into a city or urban area and the only way that the signal would reach their mobile was by multipath, so the signal would be reflected from buildings, from rooftops. And at the input to the receiver at the receive antenna you’d get a summation, constructive and destructive interference of the received signal.

It was that interference that gave amplitudes distortion and phase-distortion of the received information. So for speech it sounded like Donald Duck, and it made data communications just about impossible. If you’re going to use this type of system going forward you would have to solve that fundamental problem, which was to remove the multipath distortion from the received signal, and that’s where I started. Then the world opened up to being able to send data at very high levels which had been hitherto impossible.

Jane - As we mark ten years since the launch of Apple’s first iphone, how much of today’s technology can be linked back to the research that Joe was involved with in the 1970s?

Joe - A lot of the technology, I think, we can trace back to the southwest here. I think what Apple did was to bring design and software into it as well. They made the phone very easy to use that they allowed different digital instruments to be able to be easily interconnected. It was a tremendous job - it was attractive, it was simple to us, so really a big step forward in design software I would say.

Jane - Joe’s pioneering research is only one part of the story though. His strong links with industry have also played an important role in helping to make the southwest a world class player in the semiconductor industry…

Joe - Going back to the days of Plessey. When I started on Plessey, we had a manufacturing plant for semiconductors here in Swindon. What Swindon did was to pave the way - this was Plessey Semiconductors  and that became GEC Plessey Semiconductors. They were actually doing work in the application of silicon technology to a whole range of things including communication circuits. We then had IMOS in the southwest region as well, and that grew and that spawned lots of other firms. So over fifty/sixty years or so, we’ve now seen a massive cluster form down here in the southwest, second only to California.

If we look at the growth of mobile communications, I think we now have something like eight billion phones in the world. That’s going to grow massively so we’re going to be in trillions. One of the things I got interested in recently was proposing that we deploy a mesh network in the Bristol city region for doing the sort of experiments we need to do in driverless cars, connected vehicles, and also in pollution and traffic flow.

A mesh network is a system that allows you to monitor, in a connected way, across a region what's actually going on in terms of the sensors you’re using. If we can do experiments like that then we can start to influence the future smart cities, and we can start to look at how we make things better for society.

Jane - While the challenges facing researchers may be changing, Joe says the importance of supporting exploratory research today is just as significant as it was when he began his career.

Joe - R is for research, but R is also for risk, because without risk there’s no growth. Because unless we make things and sell things, then who's going to pay for the Health Service, who’s going to pay for the education system or what have you? I’m looking at work now I started 45 years ago which is now coming to fruition - big time. We have to capitalise on that if we’re going to survive in what is a highly competitive world.

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