A brief history of 1G mobile communication technology


During WWII, the appearance of early radio phones was limited to military use, and not available for civilian or commercial use. These were AM radio phones, that functioned as Walkie-Talkies.

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The car phones that were first commercialized in 1946 in USA by Bell System, and continued to be improved and popularized in the 1960’s made used of Improved Mobile Telephone Service (IMTS) which was still connected on the landline network, also known as Public Switched Telephone Networks (PSTN) although mobility was supported to some extent. This was an example of a radio telephone network, which was considered as pre-1G, or 0G technology.

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In 1971, the Autoradiopuhelin (ARP) network operated as the first public mobile phone network in Finland. It operated in the 150 MHz band, and calls were manually switched. The network was meant to serve car phones as well. This too was considered as 0G technology.

The first commercial 1G mobile network in the world was launched by Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Company (NTT) in Tokyo, Japan on 1 December 1979. The first mobile phones were still car phones, but the network was:

  • a cellular network with 88 cell sites with base stations, or radio towers covering all districts of Tokyo (unlike in IMTS where the network was still PSTN);
  • handover of the call between different cell sites was supported (unlike in IMTS where the call can only be connected to one radio mast);
  • automated switching without the need for human switchboard operator (unlike in ARP where the calls are manually switched).

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By 1981, the Nordic countries of Norway and Sweden built their first 1G mobile network based on the Nordic Mobile Telephone (NMT) standard, subsequently Denmark and Finland in 1982. The standard spread in quick succession to Saudi Arabia, Russia, and many other Baltic and Asian countries,.

On 13 October 1983, the USA eventually had its commercial cellular network launched by Ameritech in Chicago, based on the AMPS standards. The first hand-held mobile phone invented by Martin Cooper and manufactured by Motorola was introduced at the same time.

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In 1984, Malaysia adopted the NMT 450 standard and launched its first cellular network by then Jabatan Telekom (now Telekom Malaysia, privatized in 1987), with mobile phones introduced as ATUR 450.

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The early car phones in the Japan NTT network later evolved into “shoulder phones” in 1985 that can be carried on the shoulder like a sling bag.

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The European Total Access Cellular System (TACS, later renamed to ETACS) standard was introduced in 1985 and first implemented in the UK. After the first commercial cellular network by NTT, JTACS was later introduced in Japan in 1988.

China, currently boasting the largest mobile subscriber market, launched its first mobile network in 1987 by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications of China, using the TACS standard. A nationwide network was completed in the following year.

Most of the phones in the 1G era were:

  • heavy, most initial models weighing around 3-4 kg;
  • for corporate and executive use, not for personal use;
  • expensive, the Motorola DynaTac priced at US$3,995 for example;
  • hence a symbol of affluence and social status.

The limitations of 1G mobile technology were:

  • Poor sound quality;
  • Limited coverage;
  • Full analog mode of communication, hence inefficient use of the spectrum;
  • Low capacity, FDMA technique does not maximize system capacity;
  • Different 1G systems are incompatible with one another, due to different frequency ranges of the systems;
  • No roaming supported between different operators;
  • Weak security on air interface, no support for encryption;
  • No Mobile Assisted Handover and hence more burden on the Mobile Switching Center (MSC).

Ai Sin Chan

Joined April 2018. Trained and grew with telco engineers in 16 countries spanned over 4 continents, and written more than 10 manuals in the process. Spent a decade specializing in mobile technology. Crafts her creation with passion.

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