Why such skepticism?
Why was there such skepticism at L.M. Ericsson about the NMT group’s desire to use the AXE?
It has been said repeatedly in the history of the NMT that AXE was considered to be over-dimensioned for the system. But that was not really what was at stake; the AKE-13, for example, was also designed for major traffic volumes. The important thing was that the NMT group wanted access to the much greater “intelligence” of the AXE. Without it, roaming and other essential functions would be much more difficult to implement.
Haug recalls: “Well, the skepticism stemmed partly from the fact L.M. Ericsson thought it knew best and there are lots of people who are unwilling to give up a position once they have adopted it. I also think it was the simple fact that the AKE was a well established design while the AXE was totally new. In addition, the AKE was an L.M. Ericsson design while the AXE was some kind of ‘bastard’ – it had been produced by Ellemtel.”
Bertil Thorngren points out that L.M. Ericsson had its hands full with the AXE project and its commitments to EIS. “From that perspective, NMT and mobile problems could be seen as something the cat dragged in: a marginal and uncertain market, which at the same time demanded expensive and scarce expertise to develop the software for the MTX.”
Finland’s preference for NEC could well have had a domino effect in Denmark and Norway, says Thorngren. “And separate suppliers for NMT in the different countries would have genuinely complicated the work on joint roaming and other shared services. NMT would have been grounded from the start.”
Heikki Ahava, together with Keijo Olkkola part of the team that developed Nokia’s DX 200 digital exchange, describes how many in his company were also unable to understand why they should supply a digital exchange for NMT. By and large, much of the innovation had to be undertaken in the form of “skunk work”, unofficial research. “The top managers were just not interested and so it was probably positive that the radio unit in the 1980s was so small and was allowed to get on with developing the first handheld telephones relatively undisturbed.”
Thorngren gives credit to the exchange developers. “When push came to shove, they worked really effectively to produce the necessary software for MTX. The radio technology is just the top of the iceberg. It doesn’t matter how many Megabits you can squeeze out of each radio if this is not matched by corresponding performance throughout the system.”
Åke Persson, the member of X-division assigned to allocate resources and organize work on adapting AXE for NMT, which involved about 60 people, recalls: “The most reasonable basis for the choice of exchange for NMT was that Televerket had partly financed the development of AXE through Ellemetel. AKE-13, which was after all based on a ten-year-old technology, had been developed entirely by L.M. Ericsson. The decision was probably swayed by Televerket.”
At the end of the 1970s, Sweden had around 250,000 people subscribing to mobile terrestrial radio services. On the other hand it had fallen behind the other Nordic countries in mobile telephones. When NMT was launched in 1981, Norway led the field with 33,000 subscribers in its OLT and MTD systems, Finland had 30,000 in its system (ARP), Denmark 15,000 and Sweden 20,000 (MTD).
This corresponds to about eight subscribers per thousand in the Norwegian population, just over six in Finland, three in Denmark and just over two in Sweden. Even so, these figures were almost astronomical compared with France, for example, which had just 6,500 mobile subscribers, and the UK with 7,300.
Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn