Andrew Seybold: 25 Years of Cellular

CTIA Wireless I.T. & Entertainment 2008 was held two weeks ago in San Francisco. Even with the economy down, the show was well attended. Although I have not seen any numbers, according to those who were there, it was either smaller or about the same as last year's event. It was a good show where the hype was somewhat mitigated from previous years and there was a lot of realistic discussion about today's wireless and what is coming.

There were also signs everywhere advertising a very special dinner to be held Monday, Oct. 13, 2008, exactly 25 years after the first cellular phone call was made from the parking lot of Soldier's Field in Chicago. The dinner, hosted by the newly formed Wireless History Foundation, is the first event but my bet is that it won't be the last. The dinner guest list is shaping up to be a who's who in the cellular industry. You will note that I said 'cellular' not wireless. Wireless has been around since the late 1920s and early 1930s. The official history of two-way police radio indicates that the first two-way radio to be installed in a police car was in Bayonne, N.J.,  in 1933.

Cellular, or 'wireless' as we know it today, was not the first mobile phone service to be introduced into the United States (or elsewhere), it was first conceived by Bell Labs and presented to the FCC in 1945. Before the FCC got around to cellular, it first licensed mobile telephone service to AT&T and Southwestern Bell and the first system went live in June of 1946. In 1964, IMTS or Improved Mobile Telephone System was introduced--if you got a channel, you could use a rotary dial in your car, dial your own call and also receive a call directly. Operators known as Radio Common Carriers (private companies not related to the phone company) were also offering mobile telephone service, but most of them originated and placed calls using operators and most ran one-way paging systems as well.

There was activity in the mobile telephone industry in other countries as well, and according to one source, the first truly automatic mobile phone was invented by Ericsson and was first installed in cars in Stockholm. No matter what type of mobile telephone you had, it weighed about thirty pounds and was usually mounted in the trunk of your car with a control head mounted in the front seat.

I find it interesting that the first handheld cellular phone was invented by Motorola (Martin Cooper and his team) and when the first cellular systems were turned on, it had already received FCC approval. However, the vast majority of cellular phones were either mounted in car trunks, again with a control head in the front. Shortly after that we had "bag phones" that were smaller but still weighed ten pounds or more, and some were even usable in a car or when you were out of your car and walking around.

In December 1985, my co-author Mel Samples and I wrote a book entitled Cellular Mobile Telephone Guide that was published by Howard Sams and we even sold a few copies. Looking back at the pictures of the phones in use in those days and the simplistic
network architectures makes what we have today seem incredible. So as we approach the 25th anniversary of the first cellular phone call made in the United States, we should keep in mind what came before and how long it took to get a cellular system approved by the FCC on unheard-of frequencies in the 800-MHz band!

Today no one questions the technology or the size and power of the devices, (except for battery capacity, which has been a problem from the first handheld onward). No one questions the fact that we can travel almost anywhere in the world and stay connected, and no one really seems surprised by the promised data speeds that will be available when 4G systems hit the street. And data is even more nascent than voice. The first wireless email system was turned on by RadioMail in 1992 using the RAM Mobile Data network (partially owned by BellSouth in those days), and it sported data speeds of up to 8 Kbps. This was followed by services over the ARDIS mobile data network owned by Motorola and IBM as a joint venture and then by CDPD or Cellular Digital Packet Data systems that employed unused analog cellular channels and was the first, I believe, wireless IP-based network.

Also in the 1990s, there were more than 50 million pagers in use (today there are less than ten million) and we were experimenting with two-way paging, voice paging and, of course, faster digital paging systems. The wireless industry has seen a lot in only a few short years and it is wonderful that many of those who helped make it happen are still with us and will join the celebration in Chicago on Oct. 13! This is truly an anniversary worth celebrating.

Andrew Seybold is an authority on technology and trends shaping the world of wireless mobility. A respected analyst, consultant, commentator, author and active participant in industry trade organizations, his views have influenced strategies and shaped initiatives for telecom, mobile computing and wireless industry leaders worldwide.  Click here for more information about the Wireless History Foundation and the Oct. 13 dinner in Chicago.