Wet Country Wireless; How The British Weather Killed A Billion Pound Tech Company

A dingy and cold early February in a small British town during a pandemic lockdown is not the nicest time and place to take your exercise, but for me it has revived a forgotten memory and an interesting tale of a technology that promised a lot but delivered little. Walking through an early-1990s housing development that sprawled across the side of a hill, I noticed a couple of houses with odd antennas. Alongside the usual UHF Yagis for TV reception were small encapsulated microwave arrays about the size of a biscuit tin. Any unusual antenna piques my interest but in this case, though they are certainly unusual, I knew immediately what they were. What’s more, a much younger me really wanted one, and only didn’t sign up because their service wasn’t available where I lived.

All The Promise…

The TV advert looked promising in 1998.
The TV advert looked promising in 1998.

Ionica was a product of Cambridge University’s enterprise incubator, formed at the start of the 1990s with the aim of being the first to provide an effective alternative to the monopolistic British Telecom in the local loop. Which is to say that in the UK at the time the only way to get a home telephone line was to go through BT because they owned all the telephone wires, and it was Ionica’s plan to change all that by supplying home telephone services via microwave links.

Their offering would be cheaper than BT’s at the socket because no cable infrastructure would be required, and they would aim to beat the monopoly on call costs too. For a few years in the mid 1990s they were the darling of the UK tech investment world, with a cutting edge prestige office building just outside Cambridge, and TV adverts to garner interest in their product. The service launched in a few British towns and cities, and then almost overnight they found themselves in financial trouble and were gone. After their demise at the end of 1998 the service was continued for a short while, but by the end of the decade it was all over. Just what exactly happened?

Inside the Ionica rooftop antenna.
Inside the Ionica rooftop antenna. From Andrew McNeil’s teardown video that we’ve placed at the bottom of the page.

The technology behind Ionica’s service could probably be replicated for a few dollars worth of WiFi modules in 2021, but at the time it lay at the bleeding edge of what was possible near the consumer end of the market. A tower was erected with a base station for each community to be served, and if the customer’s premises were on a line-of-sight from it they could have that biscuit-tin antenna installed.

The fixed line-of-sight link operated at 3.5 GHz, and used custom hardware made for Ionica by Nortel Networks. A teardown on a surviving unit from 2015 which we’ve placed below the break was put up on YouTube in 2015, and it reveals a phased array of patch antennas as well as the RF and control boards. The overwhelming impression is that this would have been an extremely expensive device to manufacture in the mid 1990s, as many of its exotic RF functions would now be integrated into newer silicon and probably performed using SDR technology.

… But Not Quite The Delivery

To be on a housing estate like the one I saw the antenna on in the winter of 1996 or so would have been to see Ionica technicians doing site surveys and making installations. There was genuine demand for the service at the time, as BT’s monopoly meant a high line rental and call charges, and the promise of not one but two phone sockets allowed the possibility of using the phone and the Internet alongside each other. Heavy stuff a quarter century ago, and I wanted one.

The rainbow didn't bring good luck for Ionica.
The rainbow didn’t bring good luck for Ionica.

Perhaps it’s just as well that I didn’t have the chance, because I would surely have lost money (It wasn’t the only time that decade I failed to see the inevitable!). Shortly after the hype surrounding the service’s availability there surfaced stories of it dropping out during wet weather. We were assured that they were working on a solution, but worse was yet to come.

As spring turned into summer in about 1997, some customers struggled to receive any service at all, at fault was the verdant British tree foliage. It seems that site surveys performed in winter failed to take account of summer leaves obstructing the line-of-sight to the base station, and this seasonal service only added to the company’s woes.

With hindsight, Ionica’s product was one in some ways before its time, yet in others, one whose time had nearly passed. The expensive hardware and limited base station range would now be solved using much cheaper SDR chipsets and many more base stations, so in this decade the roll-out could have been performed much more easily and reliably. But the product itself now seems ludicrously dated, because who now needs a pair of analogue phone lines? ADSL connections arrived in the UK around 2000, so very shortly after the company’s demise they would have been stuck with a product that couldn’t deliver customer expectations. Could they have used the same hardware to deliver an always-on connection? Perhaps, but it never appeared in their published plans, and it’s unlikely that it would have had enough bandwidth to compete with ADSL.

It’s now over two decades since Ionica’s demise, and while cable TV fibre and local loop unbundling to put ISP racks in telephone exchanges have changed the telecom landscape significantly, there remains for most people a last mile connection owned by BT. Wired analogue phones are now a legacy item that increasing numbers of people only have because it comes with their broadband line, and even mobile calling is inexorably being usurped by online services.

Perhaps only now with the arrival of 5G mobile phones we’ll see that lingering BT last-mile monopoly broken. Meanwhile aside from a few weathered antennas in suburbia little remains of the company; its base station hardware turns up on eBay and is sought-after by radio amateurs and its prestige headquarters building by the A14 in Cambridge is now home for several occupants of the city’s wildly successful technology park. Brits spend a lot of their time battling the rain, but it’s not often that it brings down a billion pound company.

50 thoughts on “Wet Country Wireless; How The British Weather Killed A Billion Pound Tech Company

  1. Nice write-up Jenny. You missed one of the more hilarious causes of loss of service.
    A customer had the CPE installed and if lost coverage only a few days later, despite having ecellent signal level on the survey.
    The engineer came out, and found that in the mean time since installation a gasometer (large gas storage tank) had risen out of the ground in the local gasworks, presenting a big slab of metal in the way to the basestation….

    1. There’s one TV channel I have a similar problem with… my antenna is only just mounted high enough to “see” over a ridge, which has the parking lot of a store on it… when there’s a big truck or RV in that lot, I get bad reception.

    1. It’s a phased array, it’s just that the patches are all zero degrees apart in phase. Something like the classic 4-element vertical folded dipole array works the same way – that fat bundle of coax is called a phasing harness. Yes, I know, sometimes people trim a centimeter or two off the bottom-most line to get a little bit of downtilt, but from the factory it’s still all zero degrees apart.

      Ultimately, 5G wireless at 27 GHz is going to use electronically steerable multi-beam antennas for spot coverage in crowded areas like football stadiums (stadia?) and cricket pitches.

        1. It may not be an active phased array, but seeing as the traces radiate out from the center would the outer patches not have an ever so slight phase shift from the inner patches due to the fact of the speed that electricity travels though a wire?

          1. If you pay attention to the layout of the feed lines you will notice that they are all length matched. The offset in the center of the network is to introduce a 180 degree phase shift. This is needed as the antennas on either side are rotated 180 degress also and so keeps all the antennas in phase.

            The whole purpose of this design is to maximise gain not to provide a ‘steerable’ antenna. This is not a phased array.

  2. “a cutting edge prestige office building”. Yeah, until you actually put people and computers in it. Then you realise it’s umm, ‘not great’.

    Known locally as the Titanic (because of Ionica), it’s due to be demolished soon.

    1. I work in that building now (or did until the joys of working at home came upon is!). Not too bad in winter, but a oven in summer, despite the great trumpeting of the building being ‘naturally’ cooled when it was first built.
      The big tower that Ionica built is still there, as is a dish or two.

    2. Seems this is just another of one of those things in the Electronic Tech industry, here today gone today or tomorrow as with computers, it’s brand new and beyond everything else for the time it takes for more advanced tech to develop, like in 3 months or less it is obsoleted. Or the engineers failed as they did with the possibility of some impenetrable object growing up in the path. Reminds me a place I used to live, I liked the site I moved to because it gave me a wonderful view of the hills and forest out of my front window, then a few months later someone purchased the field across the street and decided to construct a huge ugly storage facility which totally obstructed my view. Turned out a few years after that a wild fire came through and totally wiped out the forest, now there is a view of stripped ugly brown and white hills if you look around the side of the storage building. AI was considered science fiction years ago and then it came around, everyone thought it was the greatest, but turns out AI is not so intelligent after all in my opinion. After all, it still relies on the intelligence of the person trying to use it, of which I am very limited when it comes to new tech. Good thing I am near retirement, I won’t have to worry much about it unless I decide to go back to school. Having a hard time making that decision.

  3. Just a few corrections and a Roll of Honour…

    The CPE/octagonal unit was developed by Symbionics, in the main.
    Nortel did the basestation microwave amplifiers and IF equipment.
    The basestation baseband and digital section was developed by Scientific Generics, as was the Network Management system.

    On the commercial side, what “did for” Ionica was firstly an absurd roll-out/coverage stipulation in their license.
    Secondly, once BT realised they were a credible threat, they reduced their line rental and call charges to just around the threshold where Ionica could make a profit.

    The technical side was actually pretty good. Nortel had the worldwide license on the technology, and it was rolled out in various countries long after Ionica’s demise. One example that springs to mind is South Africa, where copper theft was a real problem, as you can’t steal thin air!

    ISDN soon followed over the same kit, I think it could do 32kbps with a voice call simultaneously, as I recall, which beat the 28.8k modems of the day, and hardly any dialup time.

  4. ” Which is to say that in the UK at the time the only way to get a home telephone line was to go through BT because they owned all the telephone wires,”

    BT who?

    /Angry from ‘ull.

    1. Leaf it out Chris! Yes there were a few instances of leaves on the lines, but they were few and far between, the affected customers would either have the antenna resited or go back to BT, and the equipment reused for the next customer.

      The main screwers were BT themselves (see above.)

    2. RCA had the same problem with their 18 inch satellite dish. The aperture size was determined by their marketing people and given the performance of the available LNAs the best they could achieve was a 6dB allowance for rain fade in their link budget.

  5. I actually used Ionica when they first released their service in my area.
    It was an amazing service, when you dialed up with a 56k modem, it hit the max due to the low noise and great quality.
    After they went out of business I switched to BT home highway for the extra speed

    1. same with my area of rural UK. I’ve just been asked by another friend to install a link for them. my fifth since start of autumn. when the pubs open, I won’t have to buy a pint for a while.

    2. Ah 5G will solve all the problems.
      That’s what they said about 4g and 3g, but still we get barely 1 bar no matter if it’s 3g 4g or 5g. Some networks dont even register even outside the house. Rely on wifi calling for consistent cell service.

      Rural uk? Nope, 20 mins from two major cities and 1mile from two motorways.
      FTTC came but the cab is around 1.8km because of cable lay or 400mm LoS so speed is terrible but syncs unlike ADSL.
      FTTP finally being installed this year. Can’t wait to be rid of this forced upon me phone line.

      Cause ? BT and now openreach monoploy.

  6. Years ago we were considering a short haul (5km?) data link.
    Our two main options were
    Leasing fiber through POTS
    Dedicated microwave link.

    POTS warned us about rain fade,
    and the microwave company warned us about backhoe fade!

    We ended up going fiber.

    1. Another one for fiber is when some idiot decides it will save a lot of money to have it in an above ground conduit (oh, and it will be super easy access for repairs), but totally forgets about random Halloween bonfires. November first, people are wondering why the fiber link is dead.

    1. Makes me wonder if an analog beacon signal could be used with Ibiquity HDradio-like digital side channels.

      I guess it would have issues no matter what the “pierce” frequency would be analog or digital.

  7. Remember when Jez promised to give all homes and businesses free broadband? It would have been carnage! I was once quoted £50k by BT to run a 10/100 fibre to a remote office, it was only a mile from the cabinet as the crow flies, but there was a river in the way… And that price was only because it was due to be a 5 year contract.

  8. This system was used as a last mile solution here in Australia for when they couldn’t justify the cost of a copper pair to the subscriber house pulled out the old Nortel equipment from a mobiles site I was working on a few months ago

  9. I was one of the Nortel engineers who deployed trial and operational systems in a number of countries worldwide. Including Sri Lanka, Philippines and several others. The last one I knew of was in British Guyana which was only switched off a couple of years ago.

  10. The problems for this technology was it was all happening at once around 1995, Nortel had other WLL solutions in DECT and CDMA all coming to market at the same time. CDMA in it’s various forms was a superior product, but did not last the course. I worked on both Nortel Prox-I network deployment and operations and then moved on to QUALCOMM / Ericsson CDMA one, 2000 and 1xrtt .

  11. I had Ionica until it came to an end. It had a 64kb channel which was provided to consumers as 2 x 32 voice channels. There was no option to have a 64 ISDN, or use the 32 direct for data. It was simply provided as 2 analogue feeds. There was also a story at the time of overlap with aeronautical radar. This went both ways. No installations near airfields and some apparent interference as well.

  12. “It seems that site surveys performed in winter failed to take account of summer leaves obstructing the line-of-sight to the base station”

    Wow. What crew of incompetents did the surveys?

    1. They had a survey tool, that gave a go or no go reading. As such it was not what one would call a regular microwave back-haul survey. As someone who put in close to 20k of these in much more challenging conditions than in the UK, time was the constraint. We had a rule that if you could not get a decent signal on the property with in 15 min you moved on and let support figure out if or not it was viable.

  13. I’ve seen a few smaller companies live out almost that exact same history in the rural US.

    I don’t get it. The climate is known pretty much everywhere. The effect of rain on RF at different frequencies is known. So is the effect of tree leaves and the fact that they grow seasonally.

    Who invests all this money without thinking things through?

    Next one tries satellite. And discovers that even when it’s running at it’s best the latency is so bad it’s pretty much useless. It’s funny, you can get enough packets per second to call it broadband but it takes so long for the first of those packets to arrive most services end up timing out. It takes multiple tries to load a simple webpage and forget about any sort of media. You might as well be trying to get internet access on Mars. And it still has the rain problem, except it doesn’t even have to be rain. Thick enough clouds will do.

    So they push for BPL which broadcasts a ridiculous amount of noise over the whole HF range blocking all sorts of wireless communications. Only to give the end use a very mediocre connection that could be so easily beat even with just a phone line.

    Fiber, cable then dsl. In that order. They are all that are really acceptable. Every attempt to get around that has been pretty much equivalent to that broadband via sewer joke that Google published several years ago.

    1. I think you’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater in this assessment. Sure, some wireless tech has performed rather poorly over the ages. But the cell network as become remarkably reliable and fast, and increasingly available in rural areas. I know a couple of people who are on the Starlink program and report positively about that version of satellite internet.

  14. When we first got internet here in a small australian country town, I built a 2.4G link using two access point boards and home made antennas using recycled sat tv dishes and dipoles at focus. This gave me internet at home with only the one modem at work.

  15. I remember once upon a time being told a particular mobile technology would never take off. Max of 1 million UK subs. That was 35 years ago at Vodafone and as they say the rest is history. OH and the summer hedge tunnelling effect. Coverage always better in winter. And we had external antennas on cars then too. Class 2 handsets? Class 4 handsets with car kits….

  16. I remember a leaflet through the door at the time.
    It made out this was the way forward, that everyone was having it and was quite convincing.
    However, I figured it was a flash in the pan and so ignored it and stuck with BT.
    Everyone goes on about ‘how bad’ the utilities were, but it is nonsense, they’ve been brainwashed.
    They’re no better now and the only difference is that the profits, which were obviously made back then as well, now just go to private shareholders instead of back in to the service to keep costs down.
    And the taxpayer now subsidizes BT to install broadband anyway!

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