The History of Mobility

Time Magazine has a wonderful photo essay on “The Long Odyssey of the Cellphone”

This reminded me of how much fun I had researching and writing the section on the history of mobility in my book The Power of Mobility. I thought I’d share that section with you here. If you like technology history, the book also includes sections on the history of the printing press, the steam engine, the telegraph, the computer, and the Internet.

Wireless Technologies Unleash the Power of Mobility

The wireless age can be traced back to 1888 when German physicist Heinrich Hertz demonstrated the transmission of an electrical signal through the air to a “receiver” on the other side of the room. Hertz built upon brushes with wireless signals made by Thomas Edison and James Clerk Maxwell, but wasn’t able to carry these wireless signals forward into any practical applications.

That task fell to a young Italian entrepreneur named Guglielmo Marconi. By 1897, Marconi had received the first ever patent for this new “radio” technology and was busy forming a company to commercialize the technology and its applications. On December 12, 1901 Marconi and his team managed to send a radio signal all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

By 1907, Marconi wireless telegraph rooms were installed on all the major transatlantic ocean liners. At first, these systems were intended as profitable ventures, with well-to-do passengers paying premium prices to send “Marconigrams” to their friends and business partners on both continents and to stay connected with the news and dealings during their journey. However, with the sinking of the Titanic in April 1912, a new value of mobility was discovered. As the ship was going down, its Marconi operator stayed at his post frantically tapping out an S.O.S. message with the ship’s coordinates. The Carpathia heard the message and sailed 50 miles to save seven hundred passengers that otherwise would undoubtedly have perished. Unfortunately, the California, a ship that was much closer and could have saved many more, failed to receive the signal because their Marconi operator had turned in for the night. From that night on, the three-fold value of wireless was clear: business, pleasure, and safety.

Wireless communications continued to develop slowly through most of the 20th century. In 1921, the Detroit Police Department began using radio dispatching, but the system was transmit only. In 1933, the Bayonne, New Jersey police department deployed the first two-way push-to-talk mobile radio system, filling each squad car’s trunk with electronic equipment and requiring the officer to keep the car constantly running so the battery wouldn’t be completely run down by the inefficient radio system.

During World War II, Motorola introduced the Handie-Talkie and the Walkie-Talkie, a backpack filled with glowing vacuum tubes and radio equipment to enable, for the first time, wireless battlefield communications.

In 1946, the Bell System began offering commercial wireless telephone service for the first time, starting in St. Louis and extending to 25 cities. The service used push-to-talk technology that an operator could then manually patch through to complete a telephone call. These systems used one set of channels to cover an entire city and surrounding area, significantly limiting the number of customers. Even as late as 1981, only 24 wireless phone users could be on the line at the same time in New York City and systems limitations kept the total number of customers down to 700. Obviously, something needed to change.

That change involved both a new system architecture and new spectrum licensed from the government through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The new architecture was called “cellular” because it broke a city up into a number of “cells”, each with its own radios, allowing channels to be reused many times over and greatly increasing the number of customers and calls that could be supported.

In 1981, the FCC announced it would offer two blocks of spectrum for this new cellular technology. The first would go to the local telephone company, most often the Bell System, but sometimes GTE or United Telephone or Centel or one of dozens of other small local telephone companies. The second was opened to new non-wireline companies. Starting in June 1982 with the 30 largest cities and working through December 1989 when the final rural licenses were issued, the FCC gave out a total of 1,468 cellular licenses covering every inch of the country.

A lot of wheeling and dealing happened over those seven and a half years largely shaping the initial cellular industry in the United States. The first surprising deal involved the Bell System. The break-up of the System was happening concurrent with the issuing of licenses. Since AT&T had performed a study that suggested the total market for cellular would only be 900,000 total U.S. subscribers by 2000, the company ceded its right to participate in the spectrum give-away to the newly formed Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs). The biggest wheeler-and-dealer amongst the non-wireline companies was Craig McCaw. McCaw started the 1980s as the owner of a small cable TV business in the state of Washington. By the time the cellular industry was fully formed, McCaw Cellular was the only truly nationwide wireless carrier.

The first wireless phones in no way resembled the convenient, attractive devices we carry today. At first, wireless phones were almost universally installed in cars. Later came “bag phones” which could be carried about, but certainly couldn’t fit in a purse or pocket. But that didn’t stop folks from falling in love with mobility. By the end of 1985, there were 340,000 customers in eighty-five markets. Within two years, that number had more than tripled and the industry had generated more than a billion dollars in revenue. By the end of the decade, 5.3 million cell phones had been sold and annual revenues were at $3 billion. AT&T’s study had missed the mark. Badly.

In 1994, AT&T finally got into the cellular game, buying McCaw for $12.6 billion and assuming nearly $5 billion in the company’s debt. But the mid-1990s were also a period of technology advances that would further refine the industry. The first was leveraging Moore’s Law to introduce digital technology into cellular systems, making them much more efficient and able to multiply the number of concurrent calls. The second was the emergence of a start-up called Fleet Call (later renamed Nextel) who used a new technology from Motorola to offer wireless telephone service using a previously inefficiently run block of spectrum called Specialized Mobile Radio (SMR). Due to its origins and regulations, the Fleet Call/Nextel service included a high performance push-to-talk capability that became wildly successful. The final new technology was called Personal Communications Systems (PCS) which would enable new data services. In July 1993, the FCC announced a new set of spectrum auctions to allow up to six new competitors to enter each market using PCS technology.

One of the new nationwide carriers to emerge from the PCS license auctions was Sprint PCS. Today, in 2007, the U.S. mobile industry has consolidated down to four major nationwide players. The largest, AT&T (formerly Cingular), has been formed out of AT&T Wireless (which started as McCaw Cellular) and three of the original RBOCs (BellSouth, Southwestern Bell, Ameritech) plus parts of a fourth RBOC (Pacific Telesis). The second largest is Verizon Wireless formed out of two of the original RBOCs (Bell Atlantic and NYNEX) plus GTE plus the most significant wireless parts of Pacific Telesis. The third largest is Sprint Nextel formed through the combination of those two mid-1990s entrants. The fourth is the U.S. arm of Germany’s T-Mobile, largely formed through a roll-up of PCS auction winners. So, roughly half the industry traces its roots back to the original license gifts to the big Bell wireline companies, while the other half has been formed out of scrappy upstarts that burst onto the scene in the mid-90’s.

One thing is clear – mobility has been a huge hit. According to the CTIA, in mid-2006 there were 219.4 million U.S. wireless subscribers, spending more than $10 billion per month for mobility. And these customers have clearly begun to integrate their mobile devices into how they live, work and play.

The global impact is even more dramatic. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), it took 21 years for mobile technology to reach the first billion users worldwide. In comparison, it took 125 years for wireline telecom to reach that same billion. The second billion mobile users signed up in just three years. Wireline has yet to reach its second billion. Philip Redman of research firm Gartner, Inc. estimates that nearly half of the world’s population will be mobile users by 2010. Considering that up until now, less than 10% of the world’s population has ever made a telephone call, the impact of mobility on how the world lives and communicates is huge.

Sources:Inventors and Discoverers: Changing Our World by c 1988 by National Geographic Society, Washington DC Elizabeth L. Newhouse editor

Science Firsts: From the Creation of Science to the Science of Creation by Robert A. Adler (c) 2002 by Robert Adler, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Hoboken, NJ

Wireless Nation: The Frenzied Launch of the Cellular Revolution in America by James B. Murray, Jr. (c) 2001 by James B. Murray Jr. published by Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA

Marconi by Giancarlo Masini (c) 1976 by Giancarlo Masini, published by Marsilio Publishers, New York

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