The mobile phone has a longer history than many might think. 30 years ago, on 10 November 1981, NMT - Nordic Mobile Telephone - the world's first fully automatic mobile phone system, was launched in Oslo. This was the set-off for a remarkable mobile phone adventure.
We did have a manual mobile phone system from 1966 (OLT-Offentlig landmobiltjeneste [public land mobile service]) in Norway. But things really shifted into gear in 1981 when NMT-Nordic Mobile Telephone – the world’s first fully automatic mobile phone system that could be used in several countries, was launched.
“The demand for mobile phones was much greater than anyone had anticipated and the growth of usage was explosive. In 1984, we had 38,300 NMT subscribers distributed across 281 base stations. In 1988, Norway had the world’s highest density of mobile phones,” says Hans Myhre, former director of the NMT Group.
Where it all began
“The idea of a mobile phone service that was just as easy to use as regular landlines emerged at a Nordic conference for telecommunications at Kabelvåg in the Northern part of Norway as early as 1969. The participants agreed upon a joint, automatic mobile phone system that could be used across all of the Nordic countries,” explains Hans.
And in 1970 the work began. The 450 MHz frequency band was chosen for the new network that was to be established. The frequency had to be available in all of the countries, so it would be possible to call each country directly. Deciding on the functionality was easy. But it took some time to get the technology in place. In 1975, NMT was approved as a technical standard at the Nordic Telecommunications Conference. A trial network was established in Stockholm in 1976. In 1978, the first exchange was available to order, and the next year the first base stations.
“Our philosophy was always to have an open interface and full standardisation. Patents usually only create problems. This meant that the operators were able to collaborate. We had user-friendly terminals, simple pricing models and complete interoperability across the borders. The mobile phones were sold by independent dealers who competed fiercely. And there was also a market for mobile phones. Customers saw a practical solution to their needs. These were the reasons why it became such a success,” Hans points out.
NMT in operation
The new NMT network was launched according to schedule in 1981 in Norway and Sweden. Sweden opened in October, with Norway following in November. Denmark and Finland launched in January and March 1982. Few people know that Saudi Arabia, which had the same system, started using it in August 1981, and was therefore the first country to use the system.
In 1981, eight mobile phone operators had received approval for their terminals and were ready to launch: Simonsen (Norway), Siemens (Norway), AP (Denmark), Storno (Denmark), SRA (Sweden), Salora (Finland), Mitsubishi (Japan) and Motorola (USA).
During the first phase, coverage was only available in Eastern Norway, but this was expanded to the rest of the country over the next four years. By 1985, the system covered the entire country.
The mobile phone service was initially national, but from September 1982, NMT, as the first mobile phone system in the world, was opened for roaming between the countries using it.
“We quickly realised that we had underestimated the growth. The demand for mobile phones was much greater than anyone had anticipated. In 1984, we had 38,300 NMT subscribers distributed across 281 base stations. In 1985, our capacity problems in Oslo and Akershus were so great that we had to introduce a licence limit, which obviously caused a lot of trouble,” Hans says.
“In 1983, we had already begun to work on a supplementary system using the 900 MHz band, with new technological opportunities. The industry was informed that this system would be launched in 1986. The number of channels would increase from 180 to 2000. Since the range of the 900 band was much shorter, many more base stations were also needed.”
In December 1986 NMT-900 was launched. NMT-450 was launched in Iceland at the same time. At that time, Norway was ranked number three in the world with 81,000 mobile phones, after the USA with 450,000 and Sweden with 100,000. In 1988, Norway had the world’s highest density of mobile phones with 33 mobile phones per 1000 inhabitants. Sweden and Iceland ranked in second place with 24 per 1000.
Even though NMT was a Nordic system by name, several other countries thought that NMT was a smart system, and both the Netherlands and Switzerland started to use it. Later on they joined the roaming agreement and the NMT Group. In 1990, even the Soviet Union chose NMT-450 as its national system before the country was dissolved. All together, NMT-450 was introduced in 30 countries, and just over ten countries started to use NMT-900.
Many people have heard stories about the size of mobile phones in the 1980s, and the first NMT phones were big and bulky, weighing in at about 10-15 kg. The lightest mobile phone was the Norwegian phone Simonsen, weighing just 7 kg. The batteries were the main reason for this weight, as the electronics and the radio unit required a lot of energy. But the electronics industry was in rapid development, and in 1986, Mobira (Nokia), Motorola and NEC introduced handheld NMT-900 mobile phones weighing a couple of hundred grams. However, the phones came with a heavy price tag of 30,000 NOK. Around 1990, handheld NMT-450 phones were also introduced, and the price for the terminals dropped heavily towards the late 1980s.Â
From analogue to digital
NMT was an analogue system. In the early 1980s, it was already evident that the future was digital. Digital technology could offer higher capacity than analogue. Conversations could also be encrypted. In 1989, the GSM standard, which consists of a great deal Norwegian technology, was ready. In 1993, GSM became operational, and the rest is history.
“But I have to mention that 1994 was the year when NMT had the highest number of subscriptions, and this was the year after the introduction of GSM. It wasn’t until 1995 that GSM really started to break down the hegemony,” says Hans.
On 1 March 2001, after 15 years of operation, NMT-900 was closed down. The frequencies were needed for GSM, which was growing rapidly. But NMT-450 was in operation until 31 December 2004.
“Many were sorry to see the frequency band closed down, as the range of the 450 MHz signals was unique. There were even examples of vessels being able to establish a connection with a location between Norway and Iceland under certain atmospheric conditions.”
Even though NMT-450 had large area coverage, the coverage of today’s 2G is unrivalled. NMT-450 had a maximum of 85 per cent area coverage and 98 per cent population coverage. Today 2G covers 99.5 per cent of the population. Most of the base stations also offer 3G and are prepared for 4G.
“However, when we talk about 2G, 3G and 4G today, do remember that NMT was 1G: the first generation of mobile telephony that laid the foundations for the industrial revolution we are all a part of. Our NMT experience is priceless and has strongly contributed to the success of GSM,” says Hans Myhre.