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« The Digital Divide in Numbers: TVs, PCs, Internet users, Mobile around the world | Main | Why Mobile Data Services (or 'Mobile Internet") is 'better' than old legacy PC based internet »

November 13, 2009


Tomas - University Place, WA

In 1979 my company car had an IMTS mobile phone installed (GE) and operational in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Anywhere in the Puget Sound region I would simply lift the handset and dial the number I wished to reach.

The only reason I mention this is because of this statement near the beginning of your post:

"It was December 1, 1979, and Japan's national monopoly telecoms operator/carrier, NTT, launched the world's first mobile telecoms service commercially, with a fully functional network covering the 23 districts of Tokyo to start with, and by 1984 would offer national coverage across all of Japan. The early phones were carphones and cost thousands of dollars, a sign-up fee (remember those?) of several thousand dollars and a minimum monthly fee of about 250 dollars. Plus voice minutes costing two dollars per minute. These new mobile phones were seen by all experts and analysts including management at NTT as only a niche product for the wealthy and powerful. But that was the starting point."

My IMTS phone wasn't "cellular" but it was commercial and automated (dial), and in 1979 was not even new.

NTT may have put up the first commercial system using cellular technology, but certainly NOT "the world's first mobile telecoms service commercially."

Thanks for the trip down memory lane - I didn't get my first cellular phone until 1984... It was a Motorola portable the size, shape and weight of an average car batery...


Tomi T Ahonen

Hi Tomas

Good comment, thank you. Yes, there were radio telephoning services all over the world before the first formal 1G network, called "zero G" pre-cellular ie pre-mobile radio telecoms networks.

These usually had only one base station and reached hundreds of miles from there. Those did allow for example car-phoning, but only within the coverage of that one radio mast. These are radio phone networks, not mobile telecoms networks, as they would not allow your 'call' to 'move'. On such a network you could not drive across the country and maintain a call - unless the country was really tiny obviously.

So yes, carphones did exist long before 1979, but they were more akin to military radio communications, than modern mobile telecoms. I remember seeing somewhere a mention of the oldest car radiophone to be from the late 1920s, from Sweden.

But modern mobile telecoms do require the telecoms service to move with us, beyond the limited range of one radio mast, so that many people could use the network of radio connections, and not only a handful of simultaneous connections that such radio telephone connections could handle...

I was not clear enough in the blog. I have to re-read it and see if I can perhaps clarify a bit more, I am sure there are other readers who think - wait a moment, I had a car telephone before 1979 - like in my case, I once as a child sat in a big Mercedes limousine in Finland which had a phone, although I didn't see it used back then..

Thank you for writing

Tomi Ahonen :-)



Sorry, just coming up for air now after extensive travels. I must say this 'trip' down memory lane was far more interesting, and valuable in the historic sense, than most - of my many - air miles collected this year.. 8-)



Paul Sonnier

Hi Tomi,

I think credit must be given to Dr. Martin Cooper for the first handheld cellular phone (not a car-based cellular phone). This is the salient contribution that Dr. Cooper and his team made to advancing the mobile communications industry, because today we are not using phones tethered to our cars, which is totally impractical.

From Wikipedia:

World's first handheld phone call in public
Dr. Martin Cooper is considered the inventor of the first handheld cellular phone and the first person to make a call on a handheld cell phone prototype on April 3, 1973, in front of reporters and passers-by on a New York City street.


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Jouko Ahvenainen

"Zero G", this is fun. And yes I agree there were several radio / mobile systems before this, so probably we soon talk about "Minus N G" systems :) It is not easy to say the exact definition, what was REALLY the first system (mobile, cellular or whatever), but this Tomi's history review was interesting and valuable to read.

Tomi Ahonen

Hi Lars, Paul and Jouko

Thank you all for the comments. Lars and Jouko - thanks, it means especially much coming from you two guys, you know I mention both of you in all of my books as my personal guides to this industry so really, thank you very much.

Paul - I hear you. But it was not commercial in 1973, it was a prototype. If you want handheld voice communications in any mass produced device, yes, it was Motorola but in World War 2, the Walkie-Talkie. The Motorola cellular phone when finally commercially launched in Chicago by Ameritech in October 1983, was only one step in a gradually shrinking phone. The Motorola phone was not the first man-portable phone, and as a 'handheld' phone, it was certainly not pocketable by any means, so you needed a carrying bag (briefcase) for it anyway. Then the phones kept shrinking first to barely pocketable, and eventually to tiny size that today the phone unit itself fits inside a wristwatch with plenty to spare..

No, I do grant you the Motorola prototype was a relevant step, but it did not invent the mobile phone industry and the first commercial Motorola phone was not the starting point of the cellular mobile phone industry. I know the Wikipedia entry (I have been a passionate contributer to Wikipedia for many years including that page many times) but it does not mean Motorola started this industry, Wikipedia is very clear also, that the commerical launch of mobile telecoms was in Japan in 1979...

Thank you all three for writing

Tomi Ahonen :-)

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