Mobile telephone history
Mobile telephone history
Tom Farley is
a freelance
telecom writer
This article describes how mobile telephones, for decades a near dormant technology, became the
dynamic and perhaps most important communication tool of our lives. Commercial mobile telephony
began in 1946. The cellular radio concept was published in 1947. But only since 1995 have mobiles
become low cost, rich in features, and used world wide. We first examine mobile telephony’s early
and bulky beginnings. Next, the long journey to analog cellular. Finally, full digital working, exemplified
by GSM and now CDMA, providing services and features that make the mobile indispensable and
ubiquitous. We’ll see how early mobile telephony battled the same problems of today: government
regulation, scarce spectrum, and hardware limitations. How Scandinavian, Japanese, and United States
groups independently crafted their own radio-telephone solutions. At 58, the relatively recent,
spectacular success of today’s mobile telephone could hardly be guessed by its age. But its history
reveals why this technology took so long to mature. And the present shows us that it was worth the wait.
Public mobile telephone history begins in the 1940s
after World War II. Although primitive mobile tele-
phones existed before the War, these were specially
converted two way radios used by government or
industry, with calls patched manually into the land-
line telephone network. Many New York City fire-
boats and tugboats had such radiotelephones in the
1930s. These were private services. For this article,
though, a mobile telephone is a wireless device which
connects to the public switched telephone network
and is offered to the general public by a common
carrier or public utility. Further, mobile history is not
just a study of the telephone, the handset itself, but a
look at the wireless system it is connected to.
After World War II badly neglected civilian commu-
nication needs could finally be addressed. Many
cities lay in ruin; their infrastructures need years
of reconstruction. Post, Telephone and Telegraph
administrations, the PTTs, and private telephone
companies concentrated on providing landline tele-
phones and services first, but some mobile radio
research and development still went on. Americans
lead this low priority movement for three reasons.
The United States was physically intact after the
war, Bell Telephone Laboratories had a large group
of radio engineers and scientists to use, and the
Motorola corporation had grown significantly during
World War II. Consumer demand, research facilities,
and manufacturing capability all existed for US
mobile telephony. But was that enough? And what
kind of mobile system would be created?
On July 28, 1945 a cellular radio or small zone
system was first described in print. The head of the
United State’s Federal Communications Commission,
the FCC, outlined a two way radio service in the
460 MHz band to the Saturday Evening Post. Com-
missioner J.K. Jett had just been briefed by AT&T
personnel. They had speculated about American wire-
less communications after World War II. Deceptively
titled “Phone Me by Air”, Jett’s Post interview didn’t
suggest connecting mobile radios to the landline tele-
phone system. But he did describe frequency reuse
within a small area, the main element of cellular
radio. Millions of users, he said, could use the same
channels across the country. Low powered transmit-
ters using high band radio frequencies would keep
signals in nearby cities from interfering with each
other. Despite Jett’s initial enthusiasm, the FCC never
allocated the spectrum needed for this service. Still,
radio engineers were thinking of cellular, even if they
couldn’t build such a scheme just yet.
Already in 1924, Bell Labs tested mobile radio tele-
phony (from
A year after that landmark article, the first American
commercial mobile radio-telephone service began.
On June 17, 1946 in Saint Louis, Missouri, AT&T
and one of its regional telephone companies, South-
Telektronikk 3/4.2005
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