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

When mobile phones ushered in a new era in communication 30 years ago, consumers still didn't know what to do with the large, heavy and expensive devices.

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

When mobile phones ushered in a new era in communication 30 years ago, consumers still didn't know what to do with the large, heavy and expensive devices. The real revolution only began with falling 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 post minister at the time, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, had already issued 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 set up radio masts 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 originally wanted to start broadcasting two weeks later. But in a PR coup, the D2 launch was spontaneously brought forward to June 30, 1992, in order to be one day ahead of competitor Telekom in the history books. At the time, "D2-Privat" was not able to sell any mobile phones to its customers. The first D2 customer came from Bochum and had previously bought one of the first "mobiles" based on the GSM standard, an Ericsson GH-172, in an electronics store.

However, the legendary "bone" soon prevailed on the market, the Motorola International 3200. Today's head of technology at Vodafone Germany, Tanja Richter, remembers: "The bulky phone weighed more than 500 grams and had a battery capacity for a maximum of 120 Minutes of talk time and cost around 3,000 DM. That was a small fortune for the time." Richter started her career at Mannesmann Mobilfunk and came to Vodafone with the company takeover in 2000.

Initially, only a few people in Germany were able to share the early enthusiasm for digital mobile communications, also because the prices were very steep. Telekom and Mannesmann started out with minute prices of just under 2 Deutschmarks, or around 1 euro today. The basic fee was more than 70 Deutschmarks. Flat rates that only cost a fraction are common today.

In April 1993, just under a year after the start, several hundred thousand participants were already on the move in the two D networks. And the growth could have been much more dynamic if only there had been enough mobile phones. The technical director at Mannesmann CTO at the time, Georg Schmitt, solved the abbreviation for the digital mobile radio standard GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) in the deep sigh "God send Mobiles!" on. But mobile phones didn't just fall out of the sky, they had to be bought from Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia, Siemens and others.

But at least the prices went down. And a new service made mobile phones attractive, especially for young people. We are talking about 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, Germans were already sending around 3.6 billion text messages. Duden admitted defeat and added the word "Simsen" to its vocabulary.

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

In the mid-1990s, two more mobile communications licenses were issued in Germany - the E-networks were created with the providers E-Plus and Telefónica O2. E-Plus came under the umbrella of Telefónica in 2014, so that the duopoly of the early years has since developed into a neck-and-neck race between three providers. And with the auction of the licenses for the fifth generation of mobile communications (5G), 2019 began on 1

The premiere of the iPhone in 2007 proved to be a decisive moment in the history of digital mobile communications. The first iPhone only transmitted in the comparatively sluggish EDGE network. However, the "Jesus Phone" by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs helped smartphones achieve a breakthrough with innovative functions and a new type of user interface. With the iPhone, the balance of power also changed - from the providers to the device manufacturers from the USA and Asia. The eternal duel between the iPhone and Google's Android operating system began with the first Samsung Galaxy in 2009, and this has shaped the smartphone world to this day.

The success of free messengers such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Apple iMessage, Signal, Telegram, Line and Threema also had a no less drastic effect on the business of mobile phone providers. They outstripped SMS years ago and wiped out a billion-dollar business.

For this reason, today's mobile phone companies have to look for economic success not only in their core business, but also in other areas. After all, the web shops and shops of Telekom, Vodafone and Telefónica, which sell mobile phones and the associated additional services such as mobile phone insurance, bring a lot of money into the till.

At the same time, the providers are making a new attempt to participate appropriately in the economic success of the large Internet corporations. In a joint appeal in mid-February, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefónica and the French provider Orange called on the major platforms to partially assume the costs of the European digital infrastructure. Data traffic is increasing by up to 50 percent annually - and more than 70 percent of all traffic is video streaming, gaming and social media. These platforms would benefit from highly scalable business models at low cost. But whether the providers will ever see money from the big Internet providers is anyone's guess.

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