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Events in telecommunications history


The Telecommunications Bill, delayed the previous year because of the General Election, received Royal Assent on 12 April and became an Act of Parliament. British Telecommunications had been incorporated as a public limited company (plc) in anticipation of the Act on 1 April. The transfer to British Telecommunications plc from British Telecom as a statutory corporation of its business, its property, rights and liabilities took place on 6 August.

Initially, all shares in the new plc were owned by the Government, but in November 50.2 per cent of the new company was offered for sale to the public and employees in this first flotation of a public utility. Shares were listed in London, New York and Toronto. British Telecom's flotation was the first of a series of privatisations of state-owned utilities throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. The company's transfer into the private sector continued in December 1991 when the Government sold around half its remaining holding of 47.6 per cent of shares reducing its stake to 21.8 per cent. Virtually all the Government's remaining shares were subsequently sold in a third flotation in July 1993, raising £5 billion for the treasury and introducing 750,000 new shareholders to the company.

In July 1997 the new Labour Government relinquished its Special Share ("Golden Share"), retained at the time of the flotation, which had effectively given it the power to block a takeover of the company, and to appoint two non-executive directors to the Board.

As a plc, British Telecom had to operate under normal company law, particularly in the manner prescribed for public limited companies. Privatisation also released the new company from the constraints of the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR), allowing British Telecom greater freedom in borrowing and investment.

The 1984 Act, in addition to providing for the privatisation of British Telecom, abolished the exclusive privilege of running telecommunications systems and established a framework to safeguard the workings of competition. This meant that British Telecom finally lost its monopoly in running telecommunications systems, which it had technically retained under the 1981 Act despite the Secretary of State's licensing powers. British Telecom was now required to hold a licence to run such a system in the same way as any other telecommunications operator. The 1984 Act, in fact, made running a telecommunications system without a licence a criminal offence. The licence granted to BT lays down strict and extensive conditions affecting the range of its activities, and is subject to close scrutiny and review by the Director General of Telecommunications, the head of the Office of Telecommunications (Oftel) which was set up at this time. A system of regulation in the field of telecommunications had been recommended the previous year in the Littlechild Report.

The creation of Oftel as a non-ministerial Government department to regulate the telecommunications industry completed the separation of regulatory and operational functions begun by the 1981 Act. In particular, Oftel was to promote competition in the industry and protect the rights of consumers. Oftel could achieve this by the enforcement of the various licences granted to those operating telecommunications services, employing powers defined in the 1984 Act which could include seeking licence amendments. The political responsibility for UK telecommunications policy remained with the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

BT Centre, the company's new headquarters building designed by the Property Services Agency, was opened in June at 81 Newgate Street in the City of London. Construction of the building had begun in 1980 on the site of the Old Central Telegraph Office. The new design was a large granite and Portland stone building around an atrium, with its mass offset by curved corners and considerable use of glass, notably the extensive use of glazed tubular steel barrel vaults spanning the atrium. In style it is modern and forward looking, but in building materials it echoes the old GPO West - which housed the Central Telegraph Office for so many years - and the neighbouring St Paul's cathedral, also built of Portland stone. The interior of the building was extensively refurbished from 1997 to 1999 to make better use of space, conform to modern approaches to working, and exploit the latest telecommunications technology for more effective and fulfilling working.

Much larger than the building it replaced, BT Centre now completely covers the route of the old Bath Street, closed in 1934, and the site adjoining the old CTO. The main entrance of BT Centre follows the line of the lost street. Modern in design and appearance, BT Centre is a reflection of BT - a company committed to meeting today's telecommunications needs.

The first UK, and the world's largest, digital international telephone exchange was opened at Keybridge House in London on 23 May. The new exchange was supplied by Thorn Ericsson Telecommunications Ltd, and was based on the AXE10 (System Y) design. It provided an extra 13,800 lines, and could handle up to 144,000 call attempts an hour.

London's first satellite earth station was opened on a 3.5 acre site in Pier Road, North Woolwich near the old King George V Dock in Dockland. It was designed to handle two main areas of satellite telecommunications business: the demand for business services from the City and the provision of transmission facilities for satellite television and radio companies.

The Teleport began operations in February, transmitting commercial cable TV broadcasts using the European Communications Satellite (ECS). It was originally called the London North Woolwich Earth Station, but was renamed the London Teleport in April, coinciding with an official visit by HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. It was opened officially in October.

The Teleport was sited in North Woolwich because, with the Thames at its southern boundary, the site was protected from any future high rise development which might impede the clear outlook required by the antennas to transmit and receive signals to and from satellites. The area was also free from any radio interference.

The London Teleport was the hub of BT's international SatStream service, videoconferencing and several other specialised satellite services from computer data transfer, facsimile transmission, telex and telephone communications over private leased lines.

Ships using INMARSAT - the maritime satellite system - could access a wide range of computers and databases round the world from 9 January through the International Packet Switching Service (IPSS) provided by British Telecom International.

International Kilostream was launched, a new digital transmission service using satellite technology especially suited to the transfer of large amounts of data to overseas destinations on a daily basis.

The world's first 140 Mbit/s single-mode optical fibre system was opened between Milton Keynes and Luton.

British Telecom's first overseas office was opened in New York.

The phone book was redesigned in conjunction with consultants Wolff Olins and relaunched as the Phone Book - first, in central Manchester in March.

Prestel received the Queen's Award for Technological Achievement.

Prestel Mailbox was introduced nationwide on 15 October.

Trainphone, the first public payphone on a train, was introduced on a trial basis on services from Paddington to South Wales and the West Country. It operated via the Cellnet network.

Slimtel was launched, the first telephone instrument designed and manufactured by British Telecom.

Voicebank voice messaging service was inaugurated.

Star Services were launched, and provided new push-button facilities such as 'repeat last call' and 'call barring'. This facility was available to customers connected to 'System X' exchanges, and began at Cheltenham on 26 January.

The first 'System X' exchange in Hull was opened on 28 November, exactly 80 years after the opening of the town's first municipal exchange.

The search for a new voice for the speaking clock ended on 5 December when Brian Cobby, an assistant supervisor in a telephone exchange at Withdean, Brighton, was selected from 12 finalists in British Telecom's Golden Voice competition.

The new speaking clock was inaugurated on 2 April 1985.

The Internet forerunner, ARPANET, was divided into two networks, one to serve the military (MILNET) and the other to support academic research (ARPANET). The US Department of Defense continued to support both networks.

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