Network coverage

17 October 2011
By Nick Smith

With a quarter of a century in the world of mobile communications, Dr Mike Short, VP of Telefonica Europe, looks forward to taking up the presidency of the IET, now in its 140th year

“It’s a great honour to be the IET president in the year that we welcome the Olympic games to London,” says Mike Short. We’re sitting in the president’s office in the IET’s headquarters in Savoy Place. He’s been deputy president of the IET for two years and on the board for four. On the day of the interview he’s president-elect, but you can see he’s keen to take up his new role as president in the institution’s 140th year, the year of London 2012.

As is the custom for the incoming president, Short will be delivering an inaugural lecture to mark the start of his presidency. The topic he has chosen is ‘Digital century, the Web is you oyster’, largely to bring together “some of the energy,  power and engineering capability of two of the greatest innovation platforms we’ve ever seen: mobile and the Internet.”

These two technologies are central to Short’s career that has tracked the rise of digital communications, from its humble origins from around a quarter of a century ago, to the point where the number of subscription devices on Earth is on the brink of outstripping the planet’s human population. “I think they’re going to enable key parts of society to become more digital, to become more health, transport and management efficient.” He says that unless we understand the roots of mobile and Internet it’s going to be difficult to imagine how the future will evolve. “I’ve had the joy of applying these technologies. But I can see many more applications, systems and solutions that will emerge.”

A networked career

Contemplating an international career in telecommunications Short thinks that the trajectory is influenced in part by early contacts and educational subject selection. “It is particularly shaped by the people you come into contact with in your first few jobs. I still remember the days when I was a graduate trainee in Philips Industries, or Philips Electronics as it was then. It’s that early exposure that really nurtured some of the things that I now do today.”

From an early age Short knew he wanted to be involved in engineering, “but because I had a disrupted school education, living in Paris for a couple of years when I was a teenager, I was not allowed to do the science A-levels I wanted to do.” Short took a degree in economics and maths at Coventry University, but was “determined to work my way into a career in engineering.” His first ‘real job’ was with Philips Electronics where he was placed at Mullard Hazel Grove. He was subsequently moved to head office in a procurement function, and then to Philips Traffic Systems, rising quickly to works manager and then general manager by the time he was 27. This was his first involvement in the digital technologies he works with today. “Buying some of the first Intel microprocessors exposed me to this digital world, getting rid of metalwork and introducing modern electronic control systems.”

Short was then headhunted to join Landis and Gyr, the payphone and electricity meter company, where he ran their electronics production division in the early Eighties. He became aware that the world of payphones “didn’t really have a strong future” and on a reconnaissance mission to the USA to try to work out how payphones could be employed on a wider scale in  Europe, he saw the first mobile phone trials. That was when he thought “I want to get into mobile.”

This involvement eventually came about in 1987 through BT and Cellnet, where he was later appointed launch director for GSM digital mobile technology in 1989. He is now celebrating 25 years in the mobile industry.

Short started off engaged in network design, investment priorities, “assessing how many base stations you put in to meet the demand, assessing the scale of the network to meet the capacity of the expected market, looking at the characteristics of the billing system and the IT system to offer different pricing and service parameters. And also looking at analogue/digital transmission timescales.”

That was where we were in the late Eighties, says Short. Reflecting on the many changes he’s seen, he describes today as a “much richer consumer and data world, particularly where we have to orient the mobile technology to different sectors.”

Global implications

The theme of Short’s first lecture as IET president was the globalisation of the mobile and Internet innovation platforms. He says that some people are shocked by the statistics, but “we know that by the end of this year there will be six billion mobile phones in use and more mobile phones than people by the end of next year. We’ve reached these meteoric numbers in such a short space of time because there’s been a lot of good work within this technical ecosystem on global standards, innovation and engineering. I’m proud to have been part of that.”

Mobile is the most inclusive technology on this planet today, according to Short. The facts are mind-boggling: more people have mobile phones than have access to clean water; there are more mobile phones on the planet than toothbrushes. “So the technology is very inclusive. Does it reach all parts that need it? No. But what it is doing is offering more and more services than you would ever imagine.” He describes markets in Kenya today: farmers are able to phone ahead before they dig up their crops to gauge if there’s demand and a reasonable price. “Equally, the idea of transferring money through mobile phones to try to overcome security difficulties that exist in places such as Nairobi… transferring money using a text message was never envisaged in the early days of mobile.” Money can also be transferred simply from overseas allowing immigrant labour to send money home via mobile. “The possibility of accessing the Internet for the first time through mobile is now driving for greater inclusion and access to information.”

The idea of inclusivity is a recurrent theme in Short’s conversation. There are many innovations arising from the combination of mobile and Internet he says, before adding that any technology needs to be examined from the point of view of responsibility and reach. Along with the opportunities there are clear risks and he cautions against being “too celebratory. In terms of reach, I’m a firm believer in global economies of scale, because that reduces the unit costs and makes sure there is the maximum application and benefit available to all. Have we reached everyone on less than a dollar a day? No. There’s work to be done.”

By the year 2020 there will be 20 billion devices worldwide, possibly 50 billion. The reason for this growth explosion is that “increasingly we’re being asked to connect to machines, to provide upload and download of photographs, music, money, homework.” Anything that has a subscription to a network, Short counts as a ‘device’ (a word he typically uses rather than phone), and we’re going to need more and more of them. “We’re in a connected world looking for ways to make our lives easier, to make more personalised services available and to provide solutions to make business and personal lives more efficient.”

Mike Short at the IET

It’s that time of year again when we welcome our new president. But with only 12 short months to make an impact, what’s the strategy? “I’ve chosen to put the emphasis on digital. I’m writing a blog on the Member News website called Short circuit. I also intend to support some of the programmes we have in the international arena wherever I can. I’m going to Hong Kong to support the Mobile Asia Congress and then on to India to deliver the annual Pinkerton Lecture in Bangalore where I’ll be speaking on the latest developments in computer engineering and the impact this will have on society. Clearly, in a year you cannot do everything, but it’s a great honour in the 140th year to be president.”

When it comes to addressing issues such as skills shortages, making engineering more inclusive in terms of race and gender, making it more attractive to school children and university students, what can the incoming president do to keep them on the radar? “I think the IET has a good track record in all of these and will continue to do that. I’m involved with and chairing a round table with Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts, to deal with the skills agenda and the interface between universities and engineering employers. I’m active in the IET initiatives with women in engineering and have spoken before Women in Telecoms and Technology Group (WiTT). Annually, we’ve been involved in young women engineers’ competitions. We’ll also continue to be involved in deep education activities in schools, encouraging both men and women to take up engineering as a profession. And in the current economic climate that is going to become more important. But it’s also in line with our values and charitable statutes. I’ll be doing a lot in these areas because it’s part of the DNA of the IET.”

Looking forward to 2012

“Being in the IET gives me a big buzz, and not just because of the associations with the people on the wall.” He’s referring to the oil portraits and the busts of Faraday, Kelvin and other giants in the history of engineering science. “I was reading a piece the other day about how a fellow of the IET – Sir Isaac Shoenberg – was the key man to deliver television to the Olympics last time it was held in Britain, in 1948. It’s on the IET website.”

Previously the Olympics had only really been seen on Pathé news on TV or in cinemas, but “the Olympics are back in London after some 64 years. Let’s see what impact technology can make. It’s such a huge event – 20 times the size of the World Cup – and without engineering the Olympics simply would not run. Here at the IET we’ve got several things we’re doing to highlight how engineering makes a difference.” Short lists a forthcoming IET publication and keynote lectures as well as Web-based material geared to explaining the role engineering has had in making the games happen. “We will support some of the events taking place in London 2012 that have a trade and technology emphasis. At our annual dinner earlier this year we had Sir John Armitt, Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, talking on how important engineering is to the games’ success.”

Double-edged sword: technology’s role in rioting and reporting

Sitting in the president’s office I ask Mike Short to consider what, if any, substance there might be in media reports that social networking technology in some way facilitated what Wikipedia has dubbed the ‘2011 England Riots.’ “I don’t think it’s the technology that caused all that. I think it was simply widespread theft. The desire to steal was the basic cause and technology was used inappropriately in some cases.”

Looking on the bright side, “the technology can be just as easily used by the police to help detect the criminals involved. We need to ensure that we have the right responsibility and reach that applies to all technology.”

But when the case is clear that people are misapplying technology in the commission of a crime, such as flash-mobbing rioters into vulnerable locations, can’t we just turn off the network? “Technically, we can always switch off networks. We’ve seen that with the Egyptian uprising and the democratisation of some parts of North Africa recently. But doing so can have disproportionate effects on those who use the technology responsibly as a tool for their everyday lives. So I’m not in favour of blanket switch-off measures.” Short says he prefers the idea of working within the law to assist emergency services. “If the police need help, what help do they need? Finding ways of collaborating is much more sensible.”

The turning off of networks – effectively censoring the hard-won right to freedom of speech – raises ethical considerations “that are very high on my list. We have as an operator different issues to balance between human rights, civil liberties and cyber security. And that’s a very difficult triangle to balance and we do that every day in the best way we can.”

What about when it comes to democratised media issues such as so-called citizen journalism? This is when untrained, unaccredited witnesses beam images and reports from mobile phones out of media blackout territories such as (currently) Syria. “There is always room for trusted sources. And trusted sources need to be branded and recognised as such. Does that mean we can’t give other people that creative choice? I think we should give that choice to more people.”

“I think what we’re also seeing is an uplift in creative media, not just news gathering. We’re seeing new ways of creating music, art, games. The big challenge is trust. How do you find the trusted sources that you want to follow? Twitter allows you to follow experts should you wish. I’m not a big Twitter user, but that’s a personal choice. I do use other social networks for other purposes, so in a business setting I typically use LinkedIn, which is a fabulous address book facility. But if it starts to get into my professional life in a way that I don’t like I put a stop on it, and so I have some control.”

Dr Mike Short – a career in communications

Apart from his high-profile positions in the commercial sector, Mike Short has held many appointments. He was elected Chairman of the Global GSM Association for 1995/96 and served on its executive board for five years. He was a Board member of the WAP FORUM and founder board member of Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), as well as being active in the UMTS FORUM. He chaired the UK Mobile Data Association 1998–2008, and was until recently its honorary president.

He has served as a member of the UK Home Office Internet Task Force, UK OSAB (Ofcom Spectrum Advisory Board), Home access to Broadband committee, the UK Government Trade and Investment ICT Sector Advisory Board and its Advisory committee on London 2012. He has chaired since its inception in 2007 the Steering Board for TSB-supported Digital Communications KTN (now ICT KTN). He has been a Board member of UK Child Council for Internet safety and an IET Trustee since 2008. After looking after Cellnet’s 3G strategy and external relations he was appointed VP Technology for O2 Group in 2000, prior to demerger from BT, and later the same role for Telefonica Europe.

Short’s focus today is on European public policy that relates to innovation in research and the responsible use of mobiles. This includes a focus on advanced mobile services and data applications, including mobile learning, smart metering, transport telematics and connected healthcare.

He is a visiting professor at the universities of Surrey, De Montfort, Lancaster and Leeds. He is also on the board of Coventry University and Ravensbourne College. He was awarded an honorary Doctorate in 2008 for services to the mobile communications industry and is a fellow of the IET, Royal Academy, BCS, Royal Geographical Society, and a Member of the Royal Television Society.

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