Trivia

Hard

What Mobile Phone Service Preceded Modern Cell Phones?

Remote Call Node (RCN)
Mobile Telephone Service (MTS)
Phone Over Air (POA)
Over Air Exchange (OAE)
Photo of an old mobile radio telephone.
Hackgillam/Wikimedia

Answer: Mobile Telephone Service (MTS)

Long before modern cellular networks were available (or even technologically viable), people were working on wireless phone systems. The earliest wireless phone systems were essentially simple radio networks, the early ancestors of our modern and far-reaching cellular networks.

As early as the 1930s, deep-pocketed travelers could place phone calls from, and to, ocean liners in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in order to reach their friends and business associates. The process was driven by Marine VHF Radio and cost $7 a minute (around $100 a minute, adjusted for inflation). By the 1940s, Motorola, working with the Bell System, created the first wireless phone service company in the country. The commercial service was called Mobile Telephone Service (MTS) and was wildly successful given its limited reach and expense. Like the pricey land-to-ocean-liner systems of the 1930s, the MTS system was based on VHF radio. The MTS system first went live in St. Louis on June 17, 1946.

Although people often joke about the weight and bulk of 1980s-era briefcase cellphones, those early cellphones had nothing on the original MTS gear. MTS equipment weighed 80 pounds (36 kilograms) and required installation in an automobile or physical structure—although given the long history of geeky exploits among scientists and engineers, we can imagine at least one person involved in the production and distribution of the MTS system attempted to build a backpack model. The original service only included 3 channels for the entire city (although it was later expanded to 32 channels after more licenses were added).

Placing a phone call using the MTS system was much like placing a traditional operator-driven call. Users would activate their handset which would, in turn, connect them to an operator. That operator would then direct their call to either a landline or to another mobile handset—given the expense and scarcity of the early MTS units, it’s safe to say that the majority of calls were to landlines.

MTS systems are still in use in a handful of very rural areas of North America—long after the service completely died out in metropolitan areas. Operators for rural networks frequently cobble together homemade replacement parts and cannibalized parts from older machines to keep the system online. So the next time you pull your tiny cellphone out of your pocket and enjoy a crystal clear, private, and inexpensive phone call, give thanks that the days of 80-pound radio phones and duct-taped together towers are long behind us.

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