In this episode of the Ericsson News Podcast, we are speaking with Anders Fagerholt, an engineer at Ericsson who has worked at the company since 1973 and has seen, firsthand, nearly every generation of technology innovation of the past fifty years. Listen here.
Anders Fagerholt has worked at Ericsson since 1973 and shares his insights on 50 years of technology innovation.
Host: Anders Fagerholt, thank you very much for being a part of this podcast.
AF: Thanks for having me.
Host: So, you started your career at Ericsson — I hope you don’t mind me talking about dates and things like this — but you started your career at Ericsson in 1973. And to put that into perspective, that was, you know, before the advent of commercial mobile telephony, you know, the first generation of mobile telephony — NMT wouldn’t go into service until eight years later. So, I’m kind of curious what did our business at Ericsson look like in 1973, and what was your first role at the company?
AF: Yeah, I started out as a component engineer after what was the transmission division of Ericsson at Telefonplan in Stockholm. And I worked with electronics, while most of the people in Ericsson worked with electromechanics, they worked with relays. And in 1974, Ericsson and Telia teamed up in a company called Ellemtel and built a big office in Älvsjö and started to develop digital AXE switches. And the grey dialogue phones was a big seller due to its lightweight handset because that makes the calls longer, and then the telecom companies earned more money. A daughter company called Swedish Radio AB, they have been developing radio since World War II, I think, and I started to work towards mobile telephony. But Ericsson’s top management, with an AXE switching in focus, they tried to kill this mobile radio business at least twice. So, things happen.
Host: But as you say, you know, a lot has happened since then in our business and in the industry. And today, there’s, you know, over eight billion mobile subscriptions worldwide. You’ve touched upon this a little bit in, as you were talking, but did your colleagues, you know when we first started selling mobile systems, did your colleagues really think that this was going to be, was this going to really take off? Was this going to be what our business was in the future?
AF: Well, if you look at the four–kilogram heavy NMT Harry Hotline phone, we thought that we call those yuppienalle, a teddy bear for yuppie, so we didn’t really think that was a mass-market thing. But then, smaller devices came, many of them from our plant in Lund, which is now Sony, and when you could have the phone in your pocket, and the coverage was fair enough, then I think GSM was the Breakthrough for voice and SMS. SMS was a great thing! And then, the smartphone iPhone for the digital assistant we cannot live without today. So, rather early, most people at Ericsson saw that this was going to happen, so we poured a lot of money into the development, and we hired hordes of people.
Host: And over the next kind of two decades after you started at Ericsson, a number of technologies, you worked with a number of technologies that have been sort of core and essential to the digitalization of networks. And I’m just curious, like what were the main kind of use cases and specifically in areas where you were involved like with optical networks or microwave?
AF: Yeah. In 1976, I moved back to Gothenburg and started to work with the radar and microwaves at the military division. Today, of course, microwave technology is a key technology for 5G mid–band and high–band radios as well as mini links in the transport networks. And in 1984, we started to develop solid–state radar receivers and transmitters, using gallium arsenide semiconductors and hybrid monolithic integrated circuits, and we were quite successful. We got an investment of 500 million second — that was a lot of money in those days — to invest in product development and a small–scale factory for integrated microwave systems.
And at the same time, Ericsson research started. One antenna and one high-speed electronics research center in conjunction with this and those are still operational today. And this military technology later spilled over to our mini link radio links, and in fact, that was a part of the plan from the beginning. As the Cold War vanished, we moved people over to base station development for NTT Docomo in Japan, while I held up a small unit for 2.5 gigabit per second fiber optic electronics with multiplex and demultiplex A6 and hybrid modules. Those fiber optic links, they form the backbone of internet, and if I remember right, we cover the whole coast of China and the whole trunk work in the United Kingdom with this technology. So, that was an enabler for the internet.
Host: And a lot continued to develop and happen over the next few years because, by the year 2000, we were the leading supplier of 3G mobile systems. And this was, this is an enormous shift for a company because we’re over 140 years old, and for a large portion of that history, you know, our company was firmly footed in the world of fixed telephony. How do you think we were able to make that — I would describe — a pretty dramatic shift from being a fixed communications company to the leader in mobile telephony?
AF: I think one key factor is that we formed a very strong Ericsson Research and that they worked in very good collaboration with the product development units. So, we had kind of a good technology flow from advanced research, and over prototyping, and into product development. And I think that has been successful for us, and I mean, we see all these patterns what kind of knowledge we have gained.
Host: Right, and our IPR portfolio continues to be extremely important for areas like 5G and the future of mobile broadband. But I’m kind of curious, can you talk a little bit more about what was happening on the radio side of our business in those days? Where are we looking in at newer developments in kind of radio access connectivity and how to improve mobile internet connectivity?
Well, in 1997, one of our competitors was announcing GSM micro base out station with a size of 40 liters, and of course, this was a challenge. So, the guys in Mölndal, where we stayed in Gothenburg area those days, I mean we had some experience with NTT Docomo and mobile systems, and we have a very good knowledge about outdoor electronics for radar avionics and mini links. So, we got a task: beat the competition to the market with the 40–liter micro base station, but with two transceivers, twice the capacity. And we did it. With that kind of knowledge then, we moved over to develop both active antennas with amplifiers in the antenna and multi–lobe antennas, steerable antennas for GSM. And this technology, it’s standard technology in our LTE and 5G Ericsson radio system. And that was the starting point.
Host: And you talked about how important our research arm of organization was for making this shift from fixed telephony to mobile communications. And I’m wondering, what did we think the future of mobile connectivity was going to be? What did we see as kind of like the future tech trends at that time?
Well, 3G was a really big challenge. The amplifier linearization was really cumbersome, and the digital baseband processing was also challenging. Then we have the cost and size, and power consumption of both base stations and handsets. So, those were the key issues to get that going. But then, the mobile telephony operators they paid too much for the 3G spectrum’s licenses, so they had no money to buy network gear for. And there came the telecom crisis over us, and that was a bit of a setback, I’d say.
Host: It shortly after this time, this is when you started to get involved in another area, which is evolved into maybe something where you could describe, as you know, as our IoT business. You got involved with telematics, and these were early applications for telecommunications for vehicles. And I’m wondering, you know, this is another shift we’ve made as a company. But what role do you see that we’ve played in the evolution of connected cars?
AF: Well, actually, it started in the late 1990s with Volvo Ericsson and Telia forming, while wireless car in Gothenburg, but then Ericsson and Telia had to leave during the telecom crisis. But this company survived within Volvo, Volvo truck, and it’s now sold and owned by Volkswagen. So, that tradition is going on. But around 2011, Volvo cars asked for a modern connected vehicle cloud, and Ericsson won the deal, so an organization was set up, and the system was launched in 2012. And now, about 5 million Volvo and Geely cars are enjoying the services worldwide.
Host: I’m kind of curious, this is another shift in our in our industry that was happening at the time we were going from mobile communications to connect people to more about connecting things. What was happening that allowed for this yet another shift in the technology?
I think LTE made mobile data traffic really work in an efficient way, and then the cloud technology enabled all these different services.
Host: Going from that point, most recently, you’ve been working in business development. You meet with customers all over the world the talk about opportunities for connected vehicles and intelligent traffic systems. You know this is just another step in a process where seen so many different shifts and so many different milestones in the technology and innovation over the years. In your mind, what has been the most significant technology development of, I guess the most, the past 10 years that has brought us as a company to where we are today?
Well, as I said, 3G was a real challenge, and we made a system that was almost good. LTE, I think, is a very good system, and LTE is also the mother our of 5G, and 5G is a revolution of new technology. The new radio and a lot of more spectrum, so that we can really fulfill the communication need. I mean, you see these curves that we publish about data traffic and how it grows, and I think 5G is really necessary to cope with that.
Host: The latency have opened up incredible new opportunities for new use cases. Anders, this has been really, really interesting to get your view and experience on all these different milestones in our company. I just want to ask one more question before we have to wrap up, and I want to look forward on this a little bit. You know, having seen five decades of Ericsson’s history, what do you think our role in society should be in the coming decades? You know, what do you think the next chapter of our innovation story should be?
I think that 5G supporting different industries is really important and will be important way forward for Ericsson. And as one example, I would point out that autonomous commercial electrical vehicles in confined areas like mines, gravel pits, logistic centers, and harbors supported by 5G–dedicated networks, vehicle clouds, and troll towers. That is the playground that we are going to play in. But we have talked about technology for a long time now, and technology is nothing without people with their knowledge, with their drive, and ambition. And I’d say, the spirit we have in Ericsson —always sharing knowledge with each other, always giving a helping hand, that’s what I have experienced from day one to today. And I have been able to work with cutting-edge technology with these people that made me stay so long.
Host: I’m sure the company is extremely grateful for your service over the years. I just want to say thank you very much for being a part of this podcast. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.
AF: Oh, thanks for having me.
On November 30, 2020, Anders Fagerholt will be retiring from Ericsson after 47 and a half years of service to the company. He’s made significant contributions to many areas of the business, not the least in expanding the cooperation with the greater connected car ecosystem in Sweden.