From “bones” to smartphones: the era of mobile communications began 30 years ago

From the “bone” to the smartphone
The era of mobile communications began 30 years ago

When cell phones ushered in a new era in communication 30 years ago, consumers still didn’t know what to do with big, heavy and expensive devices. The real revolution only began with the fall in prices and the triumph of SMS.

The start of modern mobile communications 30 years ago, in the summer of 1992, was a difficult birth. The then post minister, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, had already granted the first licenses for digital mobile radio networks to Deutsche Telekom (“D1”) and the Mannesmann group (“D2”) in December 1989. However, it took several months to technically prepare for the start of operation of the two D networks, to install radio antennas and transmitters. Above all, however, there was a lack of suitable mobile phones.

On July 1, 1992, Telekom finally invited people to the official launch of its D1 network. Mannesmann Mobilfunk initially wanted to start broadcasting two weeks later. But with a public relations coup, the launch of the D2 was spontaneously brought forward to June 30, 1992, to be a day ahead of rival Telekom in the history books. At the time, “D2-Privat” was unable to sell cell phones to its customers. The first D2 customer was from Bochum and had previously purchased one of the first GSM-based “mobiles”, an Ericsson GH-172, in an electronics store.

Bone status icon

However, the legendary “bone” soon prevailed on the market, the Motorola International 3200. Tanja Richter, today’s head of technology at Vodafone Germany, recalls: “The bulky phone weighed more than 500 grams and had a battery capacity of one. maximum of 120 minutes of talk time and cost around 3,000 DM. That was a small fortune for the time. ” Richter began her career at Mannesmann Mobilfunk and joined Vodafone with the company’s acquisition in 2000.

Initially, only a few people in Germany were able to share the initial enthusiasm for digital mobile communications, not least because the prices were very high. Telekom and Mannesmann started with retail prices of just under 2 German marks, or around 1 euro today. The base rate was over 70 German marks. Flat rates that cost only a fraction are common today.

In April 1993, a little less than a year after their departure, several hundreds of thousands of participants were already on the move in the two D networks. And growth could have been much more dynamic if only there were enough cell phones. The technical director of the Mannesmann CTO at the time, Georg Schmitt, resolved the abbreviation of the digital mobile radio standard GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) with a deep sigh “God send Mobiles!” On. But cell phones didn’t just fall out of the sky, they had to be bought by Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia, Siemens and others.

Birth of SMS

But at least the prices have gone down. And a new service has made cell phones attractive, especially for young people. It is SMS (“Short Message Service”) with its 160 characters. The first SMS with the message “Merry Christmas” went to Vodafone employee Richard Jarvis on December 3, 1992. In 1994 Mannesmann and Telekom introduced SMS for their customers. Five years later, the Germans were already sending some 3.6 billion text messages. Duden admitted defeat and added the word “Simsen” to his vocabulary.

In 1999 alone, the number of mobile phone customers in Germany doubled to 48 million. The success ultimately cost Mannesmann his independence: the British giant Vodafone took over the Düsseldorf company in 2000 after several months of defensive fighting for a price of 190 billion euros.

In the mid-1990s, two more mobile communications licenses were issued in Germany: electronic networks were created with the providers E-Plus and Telefónica O2. E-Plus went under the aegis of Telefónica in 2014, so that the duopoly of the first years turned into a head-to-head race between three suppliers. And with the auction of licenses for the fifth generation of mobile communications (5G), 1 & 1 Drillisch, new player, entered the scene in 2019, but has not yet created its own network. The market as a whole is huge: last year the number of mobile phone connections in Germany rose to 161 million, so much so that in purely mathematical terms there are almost two connections for every person.

The iPhone changed everything

The first of the iPhone in 2007 proved to be a defining moment in the history of digital mobile communications: the first iPhone broadcast only on the relatively slow EDGE network. However, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’s “Jesus Phone” has helped smartphones make a breakthrough with innovative features and a new type of user interface. The balance of power has also changed with the iPhone, from suppliers to device manufacturers in the United States and Asia. With the first Samsung Galaxy in 2009 began the eternal duel between the iPhone and Google’s Android operating system, which has shaped the world of smartphones to this day.

The success of free messengers such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Apple iMessage, Signal, Telegram, Line and Threema has had a no less drastic effect on the business of mobile operators. They overtook texting years ago and wiped out a billion dollar business.

That is why today’s mobile phone companies must seek economic success not only in their core business, but in other sectors as well. After all, the online stores and shops of Telekom, Vodafone and Telefónica, which sell cell phones and associated additional services such as cell phone insurance, bring a lot of cash into the cashier.

At the same time, providers are making a new attempt to adequately participate in the economic success of large Internet groups. In a joint appeal in mid-February, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefónica and the French provider Orange asked the major platforms to partially bear the costs of Europe’s digital infrastructure. Data traffic is increasing by up to 50% per year, and over 70% of all traffic is made up of video streaming, games and social media. These platforms would benefit from highly scalable low-cost business models. But no one knows if providers will ever see the big internet providers’ money.

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