Turns out we could have had cell phones years before we did. Why didn’t we?
Before there were cellphones, there was the mobile telephone service, or MTS. Launched in 1946, this technology required unwieldy and expensive equipment—the transceiver could fill the trunk of a sedan—and its networks faced tight capacity constraints. In the beginning, the largest MTS markets had no more than 44 channels. As late as 1976, Bell System’s mobile network in New York could host just 545 subscribers. Even at sky-high prices, there were long waiting lists for subscriptions.
Cellular networks were an ingenious way to expand service dramatically. A given market would be split into cells with a base station in each. These stations, often located on towers to improve line-of-sight with mobile phone users, were able both to receive wireless signals and to transmit them. The base stations were themselves linked together, generally by wires, and connected to networks delivering plain old telephone service.
The advantages of this architecture were profound. Mobile radios could use less power, because they needed only to reach the nearest base station, not a mobile phone across town. Not only did this save battery life, but transmissions stayed local, leaving other cells quiet. A connection in one cell would be passed to an adjacent cell and then the next as the mobile user moved through space. The added capacity came from reusing frequencies, cell to cell. And cells could be “split,” yielding yet more capacity. In an MTS system, each conversation required a channel covering the entire market; only a few hundred conversations could happen at once. A cellular system could create thousands of small cells and support hundreds of thousands of simultaneous conversations.
When AT&T wanted to start developing cellular in 1947, the FCC rejected the idea, believing that spectrum could be best used by other services that were not “in the nature of convenience or luxury.” This view—that this would be a niche service for a tiny user base—persisted well into the 1980s. “Land mobile,” the generic category that covered cellular, was far down on the FCC’s list of priorities. In 1949, it was assigned just 4.7 percent of the spectrum in the relevant range. Broadcast TV was allotted 59.2 percent, and government uses got one-quarter.
I’m old enough to remember Ma Bell. My sister, in fact, had a long career with Northwestern Bell and later AT&T, retiring as a regional VP of Sales. When I first moved out of my folk’s house, mere days after I graduated high school, I left their creaking, moribund rural company, Ace Telephone, and moved to a nearby good-sized town (Cedar Falls, Iowa) and was hooked up with telephony by that self-same Northwestern Bell.
I had the choice of two leasing one of two hard-wired phones, a slimline wall-mount or the traditional big clunky desk phone. I chose the latter, in traditional black (because, as we all know, black is cruise control for cool) and opted for the touch-tone dialing. That last wasn’t available from Ace telephone, as they were still on a pulse system that required rotary dial phones.
Owning the phone wasn’t an option. It was Ma Bell’s, and we paid a lease to use it. Long-distance calls were prohibitively expensive for an 18-year old with a full-time job at the sporting-goods department in Woolco, at least if I wanted any beer money left over at the end of the week.
Priorities, you know.
This system was crony capitalism in action. Ma Bell had a government-granted monopoly on telephony, or as near as made no difference. But then, in the early 1980s, divestment happened! Ma Bell was broken up, and in months a thousand flowers bloomed. Suddenly you could buy your own phone, in a wild variety of styles and sizes, cordless and corded.
The onset of cellular phones, when that finally happened, put paid to the expensive long-distance fees; cellular companies immediately started competing for that market, first offering “free long-distance,” then doing away with the concept altogether.
You know what the market looks like now. But it’s galling to think we could have let the free market, rather than Imperial bureaucrats, decide the whole thing forty years earlier.