GSM History

A description of the development story or history of GSM, Global System for Mobile communications developed out of the original Groupe Special Mobile pan_european system.

History of Mobile Phones Includes:
Cellular telecommunications history     Cell phone systems table     Vintage & classic mobile phones     GSM history     UMTS history     5G history & timeline    

In its time, the GSM cell or mobile phone system became the most popular cellular telecommunications system in the world.

GSM handsets became available at affordable and the networks offered a robust and reliable service.

Along with this, the GSM system provided a feature-rich suite of capabilities for its time with applications such as SMS text messaging, international roaming, SIM cards and the like. It was also enhanced with technologies including GPRS and EDGE. To achieve this level of success took many years and was the result of both technical development and international cooperation. The GSM history can be seen to be a story of cooperation across Europe, and one that nobody thought would lead to the success that GSM is today.

A selection of old cellphones that were used with the 2G GSM cellular system
Selection of GSM mobile phone handsets

Note on 2G GSM:

GSM - Global System for Mobile communications was one of the second generation mobile phone systems. Using digital technology transmitting voice via data, it became the most widely used 2G system, gaining billions of subscribers.

Read more about 2G GSM.

GSM history beginnings

Although now well in the past, the first cellular telecommunications systems represented a huge leap in capabilities. The first cell phone systems that were developed used analogue technology. Typically they used frequency-modulated carriers for the voice channels and data was carried on a separate shared control channel. Two of the major systems that were in existence were the AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone System) that was used in the USA and many other countries and TACS (Total Access Communications System) that was used in the UK as well as many other countries around the world.

Another system that was employed, and achieved the milestone of being the first system to be commercially deployed. It was the Nordic Mobile Telephone system (NMT). This was developed by a consortium of companies in Scandinavia and proved that international cooperation was possible.

The success of these systems proved to be their downfall. The use of all the systems installed around the globe increased dramatically and the effects of the limited frequency allocations were soon noticed. To overcome these a number of actions were taken. A system known as E-TACS or Extended-TACS was introduced giving the TACS system further channels. In the USA another system known as Narrowband AMPS (NAMPS) was developed.

Development story progresses

It soon became obvious that cellular technology needed to be more efficient. With the experience gained from the NMT system, showing that it was possible to develop a system across national boundaries, and with the political situation in Europe lending itself to international cooperation it was decided to develop a new Pan-European System. Furthermore it was realized that economies of scale would bring significant benefits. This was the beginnings of the GSM system.

To achieve the basic definition of a new system a meeting was held in 1982 under the auspices of the Conference of European Posts and Telegraphs (CEPT). They formed a study group called the Groupe Special Mobile ( GSM ) to study and develop a pan-European public land mobile system. Several basic criteria that the new cellular technology would have to meet were set down for the new GSM system to meet. These included: good subjective speech quality, low terminal and service cost, support for international roaming, ability to support handheld terminals, support for range of new services and facilities, spectral efficiency, and finally ISDN compatibility.

With the levels of under-capacity being projected for the analogue systems, this gave a real sense of urgency to the GSM development. Although decisions about the exact nature of the cellular technology were not taken at an early stage, all parties involved had been working toward a digital system. This decision was finally made in February 1987. This gave a variety of advantages. Greater levels of spectral efficiency could be gained, and in addition to this the use of digital circuitry would allow for higher levels of integration in the circuitry. This in turn would result in cheaper handsets with more features. Nevertheless significant hurdles still needed to be overcome. For example, many of the methods for encoding the speech within a sufficiently narrow bandwidth needed to be developed, and this posed a significant risk to the project. Nevertheless the GSM system had been started.

GSM launch dates

Work continued and a launch date for the new GSM system of 1991 was set for an initial launch of a service using the new cellular technology with limited coverage and capability to be followed by a complete roll out of the service in major European cities by 1993 and linking of the areas by 1995.

Meanwhile technical development was taking place. Initial trials had shown that time division multiple access techniques offered the best performance with the technology that would be available. This approach had the support of the major manufacturing companies which would ensure that with them on board sufficient equipment both in terms of handsets, base stations and the network infrastructure for GSM would be available.

Further impetus was given to the GSM project when in 1989 the responsibility was passed to the newly formed European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). Under the auspices of ETSI the specification took place. It provided functional and interface descriptions for each of the functional entities defined in the system. The aim was to provide sufficient guidance for manufacturers that equipment from different manufacturers would be interoperable, while not stopping innovation. The result of the specification work was a set of documents extending to more than 6000 pages. Nevertheless the resultant phone system provided a robust, feature-rich system. The first roaming agreement was signed between Telecom Finland and Vodafone in the UK. Thus the vision of a pan-European network was fast becoming a reality. However this took place before any networks went live.

The aim to launch GSM by 1991 proved to be a target that was too tough to meet. Terminals started to become available in mid-1992 and the real launch took place in the latter part of that year. With such a new service many were sceptical as the analogue systems were still in widespread use. Nevertheless by the end of 1993 GSM had attracted over a million subscribers and there were 25 roaming agreements in place. The growth continued and the next million subscribers were soon attracted. This represented a major milestone in cellular telecommunications history.

Global GSM usage

Originally GSM had been planned as a European system. However the first indication that the success of GSM was spreading further afield occurred when the Australian network provider, Telstra signed the GSM Memorandum of Understanding.


Originally it had been intended that GSM would operate on frequencies in the 900 MHz cellular band. In September 1993, the British operator Mercury One-to-One launched a network. Termed DCS 1800 it operated at frequencies in a new 1800 MHz band. By adopting new frequencies new operators and further competition was introduced into the market apart from allowing additional spectrum to be used and further increasing the overall capacity.

This trend was followed in many countries, and soon the term DCS 1800 was dropped in favour of calling it GSM as it was purely the same cellular technology but operating on a different frequency band. In view of the higher frequency used the distances the signals travelled was slightly shorter but this was compensated for by additional base stations.

In the USA as well a portion of spectrum at 1900 MHz was allocated for cellular usage in 1994. The licensing body, the FCC, did not legislate which technology should be used, and accordingly this enabled GSM to gain a foothold in the US market. This system was known as PCS 1900 (Personal Communication System).

GSM success

Looking back on the way GSM developed, the way it was deployed and grew over the years, shows the GSM history is a story of success. GSM was used in many countries outside Europe. Deployment on this scale had not been anticipated and it resulted in its name change from Groupe Special Mobile to Global System for Mobile communications.

The number of subscribers grew rapidly and by the beginning of 2004 the total number of GSM subscribers reached the 1 billion mark - a major milestone in the history of cellular telecommunications as well as for GSM itself. Attaining this figure was celebrated at the Cannes 3GSM conference held that year. Figures continued to rise, reaching and then well exceeded the 3 billion mark. In this way the history of GSM has shown it was a major success.

GSM history key dates

Key GSM History Dates & Milestones
Year Milestone
1982 Groupe Speciale Mobile established by to develop the pan-European cellular mobile system standards.
1985 Basic list of recommendations to be generated by the group was adopted.
1986 Field tests undertaken to prove which techniques should be adopted for the new system.
1987 TDMA approach adopted as the main access method for GSm. Frequency division is also used between channels, but time division each individual frequency channel.

Also in this year the Initial Memorandum of Understanding was signed by telecommunication operators from 12 member countries.
1988 GSM system validation undertaken
1989 ETSI, European telecommunications Standards Institute takes on responsibility for managing the GSM standards.
1990 Phase 1 of the GSM specifications released.
1991 Commercial launch of the GSM service
1993 Coverage of main roads GSM services start outside Europe
1995 Phase 2 of the GSM specifications released
2004 GSM subscriptions reach 1 billion. Announcement made at 3GSM in Cannes

More History:
Radio history timeline     History of the radio     Ham radio history     Coherer     Crystal radio     Magnetic detector     Spark transmitter     Morse telegraph     Valve / tube history     PN junction diode invention     Transistor     Integrated circuit     Quartz crystals     Classic radios     Mobile telecoms history     Vintage mobile phones    
    Return to History menu . . .