Recently I was sent a lavish document celebrating 50 years of mobile telephony, by a large Swedish company – well, obviously, Ericsson. 50 years? you say. Well, AT&T offered a primitive service in 1946, in which quite simply you called an operator and they would ask on a common radio frequency for the subscriber desired, then, should they answer, patch you into the radio circuit. It was crude, insecure (everyone could hear), clumsy (you had to know where the called party was), relied on manual operation, but it was mobile telephony of a sort.
The theoretical principles of cellular radio were discovered in 1948 at Bell Labs, but would have to wait 30 years for electronics to progress far enough to make them practical. So how did Swedish public housing help to make it happen?
Back in the 1950s, the Swedish telecoms monopoly (Televerket, now TeliaSonera)’s boss was keen on mobile service. So they, and LM Ericsson, began developing their own system, Mobile Telephone A. MTA was a major advance – it had automated switching and was integrated with the landline system. But it still used valves, so a car installation took up the whole boot. MTB, the next generation, made the leap to transistorisation.
And it was MTB that was a commercial success. As it was launched, the Swedish government had just inaugurated a huge housebuilding project, the Million Homes Project, and new suburbs were appearing on the edges of cities. To keep up, mobile banks and surgeries were introduced – they needed a phone line, and Televerket needed a launch customer. Such a success it was, that when the Nordic telephone operators had their annual meeting in 1968, on Midsummer’s Eve in the Lofoten Islands, they agreed to develop a real cellular system, with international roaming, digital switching, and standard numbering.
So began work on NMT, the daddy of mobile phone systems. It took 10 years, with service beginning in Saudi Arabia in 1978 (Ericsson had snagged a contract for a new digital fixed phone system, and mobility was thrown in for a further consideration), but the basic architecture, indeed everything but the radio air interface, was taken over into the GSM specifications in the late 1980s. And those are shared with UMTS, and the later CDMA systems in North America.
It’s a strange consequence of Swedish social democracy.