We Could Have Had Cellphones Four Decades Earlier
Thanks for nothing, Federal Communications Commission.
By Thomas Winslow Hazlett
July 2017 Issue
The basic idea of the cellphone was introduced to the public in 1945—not in Popular Mechanics or Science, but in the down-home Saturday Evening Post. Millions of citizens would soon be using “handie-talkies,” declared J.K. Jett, the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Licenses would have to be issued, but that process “won’t be difficult.” The revolutionary technology, Jett promised in the story, would be formulated within months.
But permission to deploy it would not. The government would not allocate spectrum to realize the engineers’ vision of “cellular radio” until 1982, and licenses authorizing the service would not be fully distributed for another seven years. That’s one heck of a bureaucratic delay.
Primitive Phones and Spectrum-Hoarding
Before there were cellphones, there was the mobile telephone service, or MTS. Launched in 1946, this technology required unwieldy and expensive equipment—the transceiver could fill the trunk of a sedan—and its networks faced tight capacity constraints. In the beginning, the largest MTS markets had no more than 44 channels. As late as 1976, Bell System’s mobile network in New York could host just 545 subscribers. Even at sky-high prices, there were long waiting lists for subscriptions.
Cellular networks were an ingenious way to expand service dramatically. A given market would be split into cells with a base station in each. These stations, often located on towers to improve line-of-sight with mobile phone users, were able both to receive wireless signals and to transmit them. The base stations were themselves linked together, generally by wires, and connected to networks delivering plain old telephone service.
The advantages of this architecture were profound. Mobile radios could use less power, because they needed only to reach the nearest base station, not a mobile phone across town. Not only did this save battery life, but transmissions stayed local, leaving other cells quiet. A connection in one cell would be passed to an adjacent cell and then the next as the mobile user moved through space. The added capacity came from reusing frequencies, cell to cell. And cells could be “split,” yielding yet more capacity. In an MTS system, each conversation required a channel covering the entire market; only a few hundred conversations could happen at once. A cellular system could create thousands of small cells and support hundreds of thousands of simultaneous conversations.
When AT&T wanted to start developing cellular in 1947, the FCC rejected the idea, believing that spectrum could be best used by other services that were not “in the nature of convenience or luxury.” This view—that this would be a niche service for a tiny user base—persisted well into the 1980s. “Land mobile,” the generic category that covered cellular, was far down on the FCC’s list of priorities. In 1949, it was assigned just 4.7 percent of the spectrum in the relevant range. Broadcast TV was allotted 59.2 percent, and government uses got one-quarter.
Television broadcasting had become the FCC’s mission, and land mobile was a lark. Yet Americans could have enjoyed all the broadcasts they would watch in, say, 1960 and had cellular phone service too. Instead, TV was allocated far more bandwidth than it ever used, with enormous deserts of vacant television assignments—a vast wasteland, if you will—blocking mobile wireless for more than a generation.
How empty was this spectrum? Across America’s 210 television markets, the 81 channels originally allocated to TV created some 17,010 slots for stations. From this, the FCC planned in 1952 to authorize 2,002 TV stations. By 1962, just 603 were broadcasting in the United States. Yet broadcasters vigorously defended the idle bandwidth. When mobile telephone advocates tried to gain access to the lightly used ultra-high frequency (UHF) band, the broadcasters deluged the commission, arguing ferociously and relentlessly that mobile telephone service was an inefficient use of spectrum.