History of Mobile Communications: 1G - 5G

The mobile phone has been in existence for many years: here we detail the cell phone history since its inception.

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

Mobile phone or cellphone technology is now embedded in today's living. Mobile phones are used all around the globe, with many billions of people using them in all countries.

In view of its importance, it is often worth looking at how this all came about - the history of mobile phones, mobile communications and their technology is fascinating, and it often pays to see how far mobile communications technology has progressed since its early beginnings.

Early foundations in the mobile phone history

There were many technological developments that needed to be put in place before mobile communications or cellular telecommunications technology could be put introduced.

Radio technology started to become established at the beginning of the 20th Century. Pioneers like Marconi established radio or wireless as it was called as a viable commercial communications system.

In the 1920s the technology established itself for fixed point to point communications, broadcasting and the like.

In the 1940s, radio was an essential tool for the armed forces keeping people in contact with each other. Radio was used in mobile units, tanks, and other vehicles as well as in aircraft.

The walkie-talkie was first invented in 1937 by the Canadian Don Hings, but many other inventors followed hard on his heels, and these devices were used in many areas in WW2 by the forces.

After the war many private mobile radio systems were installed in vehicles. These were used by organisations including the emergency services as well as some utility services and commercial organisations. Typically these systems used a vehicle installation that communicated to a base station.

These systems were limited to a relatively few number of organisations and systems because if everyone had access, then the channels would be overcrowded if sufficient distances were to be achieved, then frequency re-use became an issue as they channels could only be re-used outside the coverage area.

Ideas for a cellular telecommunications system start to dawn

The very first ideas for a mobile phone surfaced as early as 1917, when a Finnish inventor named Eric Tigerstedt filed a patent for a "pocket-size folding telephone with a very thin carbon microphone".

A few experiments with mobile phone systems were undertaken in the 1960s, but these tended to be centred around large cities and used a central base station and the mobile user, typically in a car had to be in range. These very early "0G" systems were not cellular, and they were effectively a two way radio system that could be linked into the PSTN system.

In addition to this, they were exceedingly expensive and they had very limited capacity for the number of different calls supported. Systems included Bell System's Mobile Telephone Service and its successor, the Improved Mobile Telephone Service. Other systems were trialled in cities such as London and other major centres.

It was realised that what was needed was a system that had a large number of small base stations that covered a limited area. This was known as a cell. Bordering cells would use different frequencies, but the frequencies could be reused provided their was one cell in between two cells on the same channel.

Concept of a mobile communciations system where cells are used to provide frequency re-use
Concept of a mobile communciations system where cells are used to provide frequency re-use

It can be seen that if the cells 1 to 7 each each operate on different frequencies, then signals from each base station will not interfere with each other.

Assuming that the signals do not travel across an adjacent cell, then the channel or frequency is available for reuse outside the cluster and in fact the pattern can be repeated.

To achieve an operational cellular system, a considerable amount of control was required. A central system would need to be able to hand over calls from one cell to the next without dropping calls, and the phones themselves would also need to be able to respond to all the control signals.

To make this viable high levels of processing power were needed and this was only achievable after the introduction of MOS integrated circuit technology and the development of the microprocessors. The first microprocessor was released by Intel in 1971 and was designated the 4004.

History of the first cellular telecommunications systems

A number of companies started working on cellular based phone or telecommunications systems. One at the forefront of these developments was Motorola.

In fact the first cellular phone system was demonstrated by Motorola in 1973 with a called between John F. Mitchell and Martin Cooper.

However the first commercial cellular network was launched in 1979 in Japan by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone. This was followed two years later with the launch of the Nordic Mobile Telephone, NMT, which had been jointly developed by companies in these countries. Accordingly it was simultaneously launched in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

Vintage old mobile phone from the first geenration era
Early 1G vintage mobile phone with carry handle and separate handset

Many other countries followed these launches - some used systems that had already been developed, but others developed their own system. As a result, a number of different non-compatible systems were deployed and this gave rise to a number of problems and issues.

Second generation digital systems

The first generation systems demonstrated the need for the mobile of cellular communications systems. Demand rose faster than expected, even though the costs of ownership were large. In some areas capacity became an issue. Also there were other issues with security and overall performance.

It was realised that a new generation of mobile phones was needed that was based around digital technology. This could provide much better levels of performance and much greater capacity.

A number of systems were developed to meet this need. In the USA, two systems came tot he fore. One was named US Digital Cellular also referred to as TDMA because it used a time division multiple access system, and cdmaOne which used a multiple access scheme based around a direct sequence spread spectrum technique called code division multiple access or CDMA. In Japan a scheme called Pacific Digital Cellular or PDC was adopted.

The main system of interest was called GSM. This was a European collaboration. Originally called Groupe Speciale Mobile, the name was later changed to Global System for Mobile communications.

This system was devised for operation within Europe and it gave the possibility of roaming as the system would be the same in all countries. It also introduced a number of unique features including a SIM card which would enable people to carry across their number and other data from one phone to the next.

The first call over a GSM system was made on 1st July 1991 by the former Finnish prime minister Harri Holkeri and Kaarina Suonio who was the deputy mayor of the city of Tampere. They used a network built by Nokia and Siemens and operated by Radiolinja.

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

The GSM system became particularly successful and started to dominate the global mobile communications market, with some operators changing from their original systems over to GSM.

Read more about . . . . GSM development & history.

A further development that came out of GSM was the introduction of text messaging.

Using a capability that had originally been intended for engineering messages for the network, this scheme was a big success for GSM. As the costs were low, younger users were able to text friends and reduce their running costs and as a result it became exceedingly popular.

The first test SMS message was sent on 3rd December 1992, by Neil Papworth, who was a test engineer for Sema Group, used a personal computer to send "Merry Christmas" to the phone of colleague Richard Jarvis.

Third generation systems

As the use of GSM grew rapidly, the need for being able to send and receive data became more apparent. Although the second generation systems were upgraded with schemes like GPRS, EDGE, HSCD and the like, a proper mobile broadband connection was increasingly needed.

There had been a number of 2G systems, but for the third generation, only two main systems were developed. One was called CDMA2000 and this was a development of the cdmaOne system that used the CDMA system as its basis. It provided a good evaluation from the 2G to the 3G system.

The other contender was UMTS, the Universal Mobile telecommunications System, that was based around a wide-band CDMA scheme occupying 5 MHz channels rather than the 1.25 MHz channels used by cdmaOne and CDMA2000.

The UMTS standards were organised under the auspices of 3GPP, the third generation partnership project which also took on the upgrade and maintenance of the GSM standards as well.

The W-CDMA technology that was eventually used for UMTS was developed by NTT DoCoMo in Japan in the late 1990s as the air interface for their 3G network. Later NTT DoCoMo submitted the concept to the International Telecommunication Union as a candidate for 3G. The technology was accepted by the ITU as one of the 3G standards, as an alternative to CDMA2000. Later, W-CDMA was selected as an air interface for UMTS by 3GPP.

The first network using W-CDMA launched on 1st October 2001 by NTT DoCoMo as part of their FOMA network. Then the first UMTS network (FOMA was different to UMTS but used the same W-CDMA air interface) was launched by Telenor in Norway on 1st December 2001.

Initially the UMTS networks had a top data transfer rate of 384 kbps, but as time went by the basic UMTS standard was upgraded with an enhancement known as HSPA that enabled much higher data rates to be achieved.

Read more about . . . . 3G UMTS history.

4G systems

Although the 3G services had served the industry well, and speeds had increased significantly wit the introduction of HSPA, dual carrier HSPA and the like. However it became increasingly obvious that a new generation of mobile communications was needed.

Initially proposals for an upgrade to the CDMA2000 series of standards called UMB - Ultra Mobile Broadband - would be a contender, but the proposal was not pursued as it was thought that having one global standard would suit the overall industry better..

The name chosen for the new 4G successor to 3G UMTS was to be LTE standing for Long Term Evolution.

The new 4G LTE standard used an air interface modulation format based around OFDMA, orthogonal frequency division multiple. This was seen as being more robust for the large bandwidths that would be needed for the very high data rates being envisaged.

The first deployments of 4G LTE were in Stockholm, Sweden and Oslo Norway in 2009. Many other deployments followed on as the technology was able to provide many improvements over 3g.


The first two generations of mobile phone concentrated on providing voice connections for mobile phones. The next two generations, 3G and 4G focussed on providing mobile broadband.

As mobile communications technology developed further, it became obvious mobile connectivity could be used for a large variety of applications apart from voice calls, and very high speed broadband. Use cases for large numbers of devices for the Internet of Things, IoT as well as remote control requiring very low latency, and possibly one of the largest markets would be for autonomous vehicle communications.

With new applications and use cases providing a very strong case, development was started on the next generation of mobile communications.

Whilst previous generations had been given brand names such as GSM, UMTS, CDMA2000, and LTE, it was decided for the fifth generation of mobile communications, that the name 5G would be used. Everyone was calling it 5G and no other competitor systems were being developed, so 5G was the obvious choice.

Possibly one of the first developments aimed at driving forward 5G, took place in South Korea in 2008 South Korea where an R&D program looking at 5G mobile communication systems was initiated. This was even before 4G LTE had been deployed.

Other developments also started as forward looking and thinking was needed. In August 2012 New York University founded the NYU WIRELESS research centre to carry out detailed advanced work on 5G network technologies.

Also industry giants like Samsung announced they had created an initial 5G network in 2013, and then in the same year Huawei pledged to invest heavily in the development and testing of 5G.

The development continued and standardisation started under the auspices of 3GPP who also continued to maintain GSM, UMTS and LTE.

Read more about . . . . 5G history & timeline.

Summary of the major cellphone systems

Over the years there has been a host of different mobile phone systems. From the variety of first generation analogue systems, through the second and then third generation mobile phone systems to 4G LTE and then onto 5G, there has been a confusing number.

Some of these systems are now confined to the history books, whereas others are still live, and further ones are still being deployed and developed.

Understanding what the different systems and their capabilities can be difficult, so a summary has been put together to include some of the major mobile communications systems.

Like any technology mobile communications have developed over the years. The technology has changed very rapidly - early analogue systems launched in the early 1980s were voice only, and around 30 years later, data was the major revenue earner and highly integrated pocket sized smartphones were widely used - these were a far cry from the first analogue mobile phones that were just about hand portable.

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 . . .