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A Very Long Distance

Mobile telephony was once considered a niche market.

When cell phones first became commercially available in the United States in 1983, an explosion of sales soon followed. Today, cell phones are a $40 billion industry; one out of three people in the United States carries one in a pocket or a bag. But were it not for regulatory red tape, cell phones might have been available to high-tech swingers in the 1960s.

As far back as 1947, AT&T had developed the basic cellular concept: a network of small geographical areas with a low-powered transmitter in each to serve mobile phones. Looking to the future, the company asked the Federal Communications Commission to allocate more frequencies for the CB-radio-like car phone; once car phones with trunk-sized receivers became a mass phenomenon, AT&T reasoned, there would be a financial incentive to pursue more portable technology. (The transistor would be introduced by AT&T’s Bell Labs that same year.)

The FCC was unimpressed, however, and in 1949 allocated only a few more channels for mobile-phone use. Car phones, the FCC declared, were “more in the nature of convenience or luxury,” and less in the “public interest.” The result: each service area could handle only 23 mobile calls at any given time. Companies elected not to waste their time developing mobile phones for such a limited market.

It took almost two decades for regulators to reconsider. In 1968, to alleviate congested mobile-phone frequencies, the FCC made a proposal to telecommunications companies: if they could demonstrate a truly efficient, high-capacity mobile-phone service, the FCC would allocate the large number of frequencies necessary to make the service commercially viable. Research accelerated, and Motorola and Bell Labs spent millions in a race to incorporate cellular technology into usable devices. In 1973, Martin Cooper of Motorola let his rivals at Bell Labs know who won-by calling them up on a prototype handheld cell phone.
It took two more years before the FCC green-lighted the first trial cellular system, and it wasn’t until late 1982 that fully commercial cellular service was allowed in the United States. (Spectrum Cellular’s early portable phone is pictured above.) By that time, commercial service had already been established in several European countries, Japan, and even tiny Bahrain. Since then, the cell-phone industry has become one of the fastest growing in history. But if the FCC hadn’t slowed the process, we might have been using cell phones 20 years earlier.