The Motorola DynaTAC 8000x was a highly desirable, technological marvel. In 1983, after decades in development, it became the first mobile phone to win the approval of the US Federal Communications Commission, opening the door to a new era of wireless telephony.
Not for nothing was it nicknamed the ‘brick phone’: it was 25cm (10in) long, excluding the antenna, and weighed nearly 800g (1lb 12oz). If charged for 10 hours, it could support calls lasting 30 minutes to an hour, but after eight hours it needed recharging. Despite its price tag of US$3,995, Motorola struggled to satisfy the public’s demand.
Cells and mobility
DynaTAC stood for ‘Dynamic Adaptive Total Area Coverage’, a clue to the development that brought about the telephone revolution. A mobile phone transmits and receives radio waves, communicating with an antenna at the nearest base station, which makes the link to the phone of the other party. The area within range of the base station is called a ‘cell’.
At first, these cells were large with limited capacity. But in the 1980s telephone companies created networks of smaller cells, which could carry more traffic. The new ‘cellular’ phone technology allowed users to move freely from one cell to another, a process called ‘handover’ or ‘handoff’. The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), established in 1982, set the standards that permitted ‘roaming’ between different mobile phone service providers.
The early, ‘first generation’ (1G) mobile phones were based on analogue radio signals. In the second generation (2G), launched in 1991, signals were converted from analogue to digital communications, the language of computers. The third generation (3G), launched in 2001, extended the digital capabilities with high-speed data access to embrace email and internet links. Meanwhile, mobile phones became cheaper, smaller and more efficient, soon acquiring a cluster of advanced features previously found on separate gadgets, such as a clock, calculator, camera and camcorder, video games console and MP3 music player. In 1984, there were 300,000 mobile phone subscribers in the world; by 2000 there were 550 million; now there are 3.5 billion and cell phone networks are accessible to 80 per
cent of the world’s population.