The Development of Cellular Phones

views updated

The Development of Cellular Phones


The development, marketing, and resulting universal use of cellular telephones, all in less than 20 years, makes the cell phone one of the world's most popular innovations. Once merely a toy for wealthy businessmen and the rich, cell phones are now a part of everyday life. For many, the cell phone is such an omnipresent force that it is difficult to conceive of a time before its widespread utilization. In fact, a 1999 report by the United Nations predicted that cell phones will outnumber traditional land lines within the next decade. The latest statistics estimate that there are more than 400 million cell phone users worldwide, with more than 250,000 added every day, a stark contrast to the mere 11 million users in 1990.


The roots of cellular phones stretch back to the crude origins of mobile radio usage in vehicles. In 1921 the Detroit, Michigan, Police Department became the first to utilize the device in the United States. Police and emergency use pushed early development, which progressed slowly. Researchers gave little thought to public applications for mobile phones. AT&T, which built the vaunted Bell System in the United States, showed little interest in mobile phones, which also hindered development.

In the late 1940s technological innovations, such as low-cost microprocessors and digital switching, made mobile telephones more practical. The first public mobile telephone system in the United States began in St. Louis in 1945 with three channels. The St. Louis experiment was made possible by the increased pool of skilled radio personnel after World War II and the use of radio communications in the armed services.

D.H. Ring, a Bell Laboratories scientist, originated the cellular concept in 1947. Ring and his colleagues realized that by using small geographic service areas (or "cells"), combined with low-powered transmitters in each area and radio spectrum frequency reuse, they could greatly increase the capacity of mobile phones. Few people, however, believed the cellular system had a commercial application, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) added to the problem by not allocating the necessary airwaves. AT&T asked the FCC to open the radio spectrum as an enticement for further research, but the FCC decided to limit the frequencies, thus squelching further work.

Under increasing pressure from AT&T and the general public, which had heard about advances in mobile phones, the FCC reconsidered its position in the late 1960s. The Bell Labs once again took the lead in proposing a cellular system of numerous low-powered broadcast towers, each covering a cell only a few miles in radius. By 1977 AT&T had built and operated a model cell system. The next year, after the FCC approved Illinois Bell's request, testing began in Chicago, with over 2,000 customers. In 1979 the first commercial cell phone system opened in Tokyo, Japan.

The early 1980s were crucial for the development of cellular phones. In 1981 Motorola and American Radio started a second test in the Washington, D.C., area. The next year, after dragging its feet, the FCC finally permitted commercial cellular service in the United States. The FCC's 1982 decision to break up AT&T's regulated monopoly also stymied additional research and development. Ameritech provided the first commercial service the following year in Chicago, while Motorola followed up in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Over the next several years consumer demand exploded. There were more than one million subscribers by 1987. The airwaves quickly became overcrowded, however, forcing the FCC to open the 800 MHz band. This decision stimulated growth in the cell phone industry and led to further research. The original analog cellular systems, Advanced Mobile Phone Service (AMPS), set the standard in North and South America, while the rest of the world used several types of analog cellular, the most prominent being Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM). Today, only a handful of U.S. carriers employ GSM. Some (AT&T) use Time-Division Multiple Access (TDMA), while others (Sprint and Bell Atlantic) utilize Code-Division Multiple Access (CDMA).


While it took decades for the cellular phone industry to develop, the nearly immediate acceptance of cell phones worldwide led to tremendous growth. In fact, cellular phones have proven to be more practical in many areas of the world than traditional wire-based phone systems. It is easier and more efficient to put up cell towers in many European, Asian, and South American countries than to string up countless miles of phone lines. Cell phones are especially important for nations that do not have strong infrastructures or whose environment is not conducive to wire lines.

In the United States the romance with cellular technology took off from the start. In 1983 the first issue of Cellular Business magazine was published, which helped popularize the system. A year later the Cellular Radio Communications Association (CRCA) formed as an education and legislative advocate for the cellular industry. The CRCA later changed its name to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA). An earlier group, founded in 1949 and established as Telocator, later became the Personal Communication Industry Association (PCIA) and represents the broadest segments of wireless communications.

The first profile of cell phone users generated in 1987 found that they were primarily male, 35-50 years old, managers or entrepreneurs, spent a great deal of time in their cars, and had income in excess of $35,000. In fact, the average mobile phone cost $1,000 that year, with portables reaching $2,000. The biggest complaints, however, were not associated with cost. Instead, users criticized battery weight, lack of battery life, and the lack of privacy on cell phones. The FCC even denied a petition filed by the Washington Legal Foundation requesting a privacy label be placed on the devices, saying it would not serve public interest.

As the 1980s progressed, the CTIA and cellular carriers embarked on a program to raise mainstream awareness of cellular phones. In 1988 the cellular industry began testing retail sales channels, such as Sears and Kmart, and audio manufacturers like Clarion and Sanyo entered the market. It would take several years before cellular phones regularly appeared in retail stores.

Initial estimates of total cell phone users made in the early days (like AT&T's 1983 prediction of 900,000 U.S. subscribers in 2000) were dwarfed by demand, and cell phone carriers and manufacturers rushed to push the technology on consumers. The results have been phenomenal. The 1999 CTIA Wireless Industry Survey shows that more than 80 million subscribers in the United States generated over $37 billion in revenue and provided more than 141,000 jobs. As the technology has progressed, the average monthly bill has dropped from $185 a month in 1984 to a low of $39.43 in 1999.

Cellular providers are key players in the global telecommunications arena. In early 2000 Vodafone AirTouch of Britain bid more than $183 billion to acquire Mannesmann of Germany, the largest takeover in corporate history. Actually, the reaction to the deal was muted to some degree by the great number of multibillion-dollar wireless deals in the waning days of the twentieth century. The telecommunications giants are betting that someday soon wireless subscribers will be able to travel around the world without roaming problems. At stake are billions (if not trillions) of dollars in shareholder money.

Cellular technology has had other wide-ranging effects on society. It has played a key role in the information age, allowing people to telecommute and live and work where they want. Over 90% of current users say it makes them more efficient workers. Cell phones also provide a sense of safety for users. A recent study shows that two-thirds of new subscribers bought their phones for safety and security. The number of 911 calls nationwide made on cell phones has jumped from 17% in 1995 to 49% in 1998. Analysts believe this number will reach 60% as the services continue to drop in price.

The explosion of cell phone use, however, has had its critics. In 1993 a Florida man filed a lawsuit claiming his wife's brain tumor was caused by her cell phone. This case set off a slew of studies on safety issues. The CTIA formed Wireless Technology Research (WTR) and gave it more than $25 million to study the health risks. The WTR's efforts are compromised, however, by the fact that it is funded by the CTIA and several of the major carriers and manufacturers. The World Health Organization is studying radio frequency radiation (RFR), but its results are not due until 2005.

Those who use cell phones while driving are also under scrutiny, and legislatures across the United States have begun to pass legislation outlawing the practice. On September 1, 1999, Lawrence Simon became the first driver cited for using a cell phone while driving in Brooklyn, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. The Brooklyn legislation has set off a national discussion of the issue. Bills to restrict the use of cell phones while driving are pending in eight other states. Critics of such legislation abhor the attempt to curtail their freedom to use the devices. Cell phone manufacturers and carriers, on the other hand, want to give people more options in their cars, like in-dash Internet browsers and fax machines, which all springboard off the success of cell phones.

In just over a decade, cellular communications has grown from little more than a good idea into a multibillion dollar industry. From essentially a futuristic dream, cell phones have become a common, even expected, communications tool. As cellular technology keeps pace with computer processors and wireless equipment, cell phones are becoming more than just telecommunications devices. They are being transformed into essential connections to the Internet world, strengthening the ties between people and technology.


Further Reading


Bedell, Paul. Cellular/PCS Management. New York: Mc-Graw Hill, 1999.

Calhoun, George. Wireless Access and the Local TelephoneNetwork. Boston: Artech House, 1992.

Gibson, Stephen W. Cellular Mobile Radiotelephones. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987.

Goodman, David J. Wireless Personal Communications Systems. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997.


Farley, Tom. "Digital Wireless Basics."

Schiesel, Seth. "Europe's Megadeal: The Technology." New York Times (February 4, 2000): C9.

About this article

The Development of Cellular Phones

Updated About content Print Article


The Development of Cellular Phones