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 telephones existed before the War, these were specially converted two way radios used by government or industry, with calls patched manually into the landline telephone network. Many New York City fireboats 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, for the most part, 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 communication 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 telephones 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 U.S. 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. Commissioner J.K. Jett had just been briefed by AT&T personnel. They talked to him about possibilities for American wireless communications after World War II. Deceptively titled “Phone Me by Air”, Jett’s Post interview didn’t suggest connecting mobile radios to the landline telephone system. But he did describe frequency reuse within a small geographical area, the main element of cellular radio. Millions of users, he said, could use the same channels across the country. Low powered transmitters using high band radio frequencies would keep signals in nearby cities from interfering with each other. Despite Jett’s initial enthusiasm, the F.C.C. 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.
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,...