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Free Minds & Free Markets

We Could Have Had Cellphones Four Decades Earlier

Thanks for nothing, Federal Communications Commission.

RyanJLane/IStockPhotoRyanJLane/IStockPhotoThe 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.

It may seem surprising that they were so determined to preserve those vacant frequencies. Given that commercial TV station licenses were severely limited—enough to support only three national networks—they might have seen the scores of unused channels as a threat. What if policy makers got serious about increasing competition? Shrinking the TV band by slicing off chunks for mobile phone services could have protected incumbent broadcasters from future television competitors. Why, then, did they oppose it?

The answer: The broadcasters believed they held sufficient veto power to prevent the prospect of competing stations. Meanwhile, they cherished the option value of unused spectrum. This thinking proved prescient: Years later, unoccupied TV frequencies would be awarded to the incumbent broadcasters, without payment, during the transition to digital television.

A Recipe for Delay

Meanwhile, MTS was being supplied by licensees called radio common carriers (RCCs). The government's policy was to license just two mobile operators per market, generally AT&T and a much smaller competitor. The FCC also distributed "private land mobile" licenses to companies not in the communications business, for strictly internal wireless use. These allowed, for instance, an airline to coordinate baggage operations at an airport, a freight train to check its track assignments, or workers on an offshore oil rig to talk with company personnel at the home office.

In 1968, there were 62,000 common carrier phone subscribers, almost equally split between AT&T and, collectively, 500 tiny rivals. Private land mobile licenses were allotted far more bandwidth (about 90 percent of the spectrum set aside for land mobile) and deployed more phones. But compared with the 326 million U.S. cellular subscriptions that existed by 2012, both of these low-tech services were fleas on an elephant.

The RCCs intensely opposed cellular, rightly fearing that it would ravage their small-scale, barely profitable operations. They had a powerful ally in Motorola, then a pioneering wireless technology company. Both the RCCs and the private land mobile operators were excellent Motorola customers, buying radios that cost thousands of dollars each. Motorola's major rival, AT&T, was excluded from selling land mobile radios by a 1956 antitrust settlement. Protecting its dominant market position meant protecting its customers from competition, so Motorola worked to deter the cellphone revolution.

AT&T's Bell Labs had conceived and developed cellular technology. But as passionate as its scientists were about mobile phones, the company enjoyed lucrative monopoly franchises in fixed-line telephony. AT&T convinced itself that mobile services would not add much to corporate sales, so it was much less aggressive in pushing for the new tech than it might have been. That allowed anti-cellular interests to have their way with regulators for many years: While AT&T formally requested a cellular allocation in 1958, the FCC did not respond until 1968.

In 1970, the agency finally agreed to deploy some spectrum for the new service. It proposed to make room by moving the television stations at channels 70 through 83 to lower assignments, and it cobbled together some other idle frequencies as well. But the issue was far from settled. From 1970 until 1982, cellular technology would be caught in a vortex of legal chaos, battered by rulemakings and reconsiderations and court verdicts. A 1991 study published by the National Economic Research Associates concluded that, "had the FCC proceeded directly to licensing from its 1970 allocation decision, cellular licenses could have been granted as early as 1972 and systems could have been operational in 1973." But a lot of businesses had an interest in keeping the FCC bottled up.

It was a Motorola vice president, Marty Cooper, who placed the first cellular call with a mobile handset in 1973. It might as well have been a pocket-dial. Motorola's lawyers were placing calls of their own, lobbying FCC bureaucrats to keep cellular networks from being built. (Motorola misjudged its own interests: It would become a leading beneficiary of the new marketplace. By 2006 it was the world's second-largest vendor of cellphones, selling more than 200 million units per year.)

Photo Credit: RyanJLane/IStockPhoto

Thomas Winslow Hazlett is Hugh H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University. His most recent book is The Political Spectrum: The Tumultuous Liberation of Wireless Technology, from Herbert Hoover to the Smart Phone (Yale University Press).

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  • Longtobefree||

    Yep, these guy really need to be in charge of the internet. No question.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Who needs a telephone? You can send letters.

  • Libertarian||

    +1 Postcards..........the Twitter of the '20s.

  • Uncle Jay||

    Try a carrier pigeon.
    They're more cute.

  • Dan S.||

    I first read about the prospect of cellular phones in an article in popular Science or some similar magazine, published around 1980, or maybe a few years before. It was certainly implied that this was a new idea that had recently been thought of, and this is the first I'm hearing that it is older than the 1970s. But present-day cell phones depend heavily on the miniaturization made possible by integrated circuits, and by digital technology in general. The first generation, analog cell phones were not a smashing success. So we really couldn't have had anything like today's cell phones very much earlier than we did, because the technology just wasn't there, even if the spectrum had been.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    On the other hand, maybe the transistor would have been pushed along faster if cell phones had provided a use. The article says there was a long waiting list for the awful car phones of the day; if cell phones had enabled expanding that list, it could only have made car phones even more desirable, snowballing demand sooner. And I wonder how much larger cell phones would have been 30 years sooner -- look at front line radios in WW II, which were probably about the same size as the early car phone systems. Suppose cell capability doubled the size -- they'd still fit in a car, and if they had enabled ten times as many subscribers, that coul donly have increased demand and pushed the tech so much sooner.

    On the other hand, transistors weren't used in computers until the late 1950s. Still even if cell phones had only used them 20 years sooner, that would have been better. I don't think it would have changed what we have now, much, since it does depend on so many other aspects, but it's still several decades of lost opportunity thanks to coercive government bureaucrats.

  • Libertarian||

    The sad truth is that we'll never know how much further advanced communications, medicine, transportation, etc would be today without government interference. And consequently, how many lives could have been saved, or made happier and healthier.

    Even sadder is the common belief that this point in time was inevitable, and that government was nothing but a help in getting here.

  • JohnQ||

    Correction: We'll never know how much less advanced communications, medicine, transportation, etc would be today without government "interference." After all, it was government "interference" that paid for the research that led to the development of the technologies that allow you to post stupid comments on the Internet.

  • Agammamon||

    But what we would have had is a 4 decade reduction in roll-out costs for phone service in general.

    Its a lot easier to hook a base station up to house power, plug a phone into it and off you go than to run the twisted pair infrastructure alongside the already existing powered one. This would have either reduced costs for providing phone service to 'rural' areas (which don't forget that urban subscribers to land-line service were and are still forced to subsidize) or at least reduced urban installation costs that that money could have been repurposed for rural wired service (if wireless was not feasable) without placing an additional burden on urban customers.

    And you would have had more options, such as actually being able to choose a mobile phone (you would have been able to weight the costs and benefits of lugging a brick and its battery around), car phones, and a much lower entry cost for new competitors driving costs down without having the government finagle 'common-carrier' regulations for physical infrastructure.

    On top of that, the transistor was first created in 1926 and the first *practical* one in 1947 - so there would have been transistorized phones available and a pretty large push to miniaturize transistors that didn't happen again until the micro-computing revolution of the 1980's.

    In fact, we might have had PC's up to four decades earlier if it weren't for the FCC.

  • Agammamon||

    I think this also means that, contrary to the people on Reddit who constantly tell me that the internet wouldn't exist because the government gave the couple guys who develop TCP/IP some money, that absent the government's interference the private market like would have rolled out the internet at the same time - if not a decade or two *earlier*.

  • Wizard4169||

    If the FCC had been in charge of the internet from the beginning, we'd still be running on the ARPANet. You know, where each new node had to be hard-wired in, and any commercial use was actually illegal. Oh, and we'd still be studying the impact of this wild and crazy "World-Wide-Web" graphical interface thingy. And even once that was approved, we'd still be surfing on Netscape, because clearly the browser would be a natural monopoly.

  • jelabarre||

    Actually, we'd be on NCSA Mosaic, because obviously having a commercial entity providing the web browser would be verbotten. OTOH, at least we wouldn't have has MS Internyet Exploder.

  • JohnQ||

    You're aware that the government "ran" the Internet until well into the 2000's, right?

  • JohnQ||

    You're aware that the government "ran" the Internet until well into the 2000's, right?

  • Robert||

    Yeah, but there are those who lay a lot of miniaturiz'n to NASA.

  • Mark22||

    So we really couldn't have had anything like today's cell phones very much earlier than we did

    The transistor was invented in 1947 and transistors are pretty easy to make. Even without transistors, cars could have had phones installed like car radios.

  • JeremyR||

    Cars did have phones installed into them. Ever watch Mannix? He had one.

  • JeremyR||

    And everyone else had the idea 15 years earlier watching Get Smart

  • Robert||

    Napoleon Solo had to communicate via human operator to/from satellite...unless it was a 'bot responding to, "Open channel D, please."

  • Robbzilla||

    There was some sort of cellphone available in the 60's. I remember Jethro in the Beverly Hillbillies hooking up a long cord to a phone and putting it in his car to have a "car phone."

    After a quick Google, it looks like they used some sort of ship-to-shore radio.

    http://weburbanist.com/2012/09.....ou-should/

    "In 1946, the first "mobile radiophone service" allowing calls from fixed to mobile telephones became available in St. Louis, and by 1964 there were 1.5 million mobile phone users in the United States."

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    were able both to receive wireless signals and to transmit them

    Looks like someone's trying to avoid splitting an infinitive. Please do. It would sound so much more natural as

    were able to both receive and transmit wireless signals

    or even

    were able to both send and receive wireless signals
  • Longtobefree||

    Wireless signal sending and receiving were. - Yoda

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Grammar nazi quibbles aside, this is a fun read. I had no idea cell phone tech was even dreamt of so early, and wonder what the cell phones would have looked like. The first actual ones were huge, like you say, and one can only imagine that vacuum tube ones would have been restricted to cars. Or maybe cell phone needs would have pushed transistor development faster, or maybe development would have taken so long that they would have been about the same size anyway.

    The FCC aspect surprises me only because I didn't think the tech idea had been thought of so early. It reminds me so much of Watt's steam engine patent, being used to keep rivals from creating more compact and powerful engines for mobile use because Watt didn't know how to build the higher pressure engines necessary; so the world's first steamship was built in the technologically backwards US where the British patent didn't hold sway.

    Another instance of unseen consequence outweighing seen actions! Funny how it happens so often when coercive government bureaucrats don't have to worry about staying in business and can make unsound decisions with no individual or corporate accountability.

    And as an aside, your name makes me think of Henry Hazlitt, every time I see it. I bet others see the coincidence too. Not a bad thing, I hope. His Economics in One Lesson [sic?] is wonderful.

  • Robert||

    But this is the 1st time, in my recollection, I've seen the Winslow spelled out.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Great background on wireless communications.

    Another thing is that government and crony capitalists tend to hold on to "investments" and make start ups difficult. In other words, AT&T had spend a lot of money on wired telecom around the USA and would not be too keen on a new company taking all their business away for a better business model- wireless communications.

    Solution: Shrink government. Change the law that companies are not people and cannot give campaign money to politicians, only individuals could contribute. Use anti-trust/conspiracy law against any company that tries to use government to stifle competition.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Change the law that companies are not people and cannot give campaign money to politicians, only individuals could contribute

    No.
    It's unworkable; there are too many ways around it, all requiring yet more government intrusion to police.

    Cut the demand by cutting government. Reduce laws at every opportunity, don't create new ones in their place. Here's an idea: don't give government any monopoly. Require that every government agency, office, bureaucracy, etc, must have its own funding source detailed in its chartering law. This makes it feasible for private people and businesses and charities to have a fixed target to compete with. I have no doubt they would all be more efficient and provide better service than their government competitors, and would make it harder and harder for the government to justify its hide-bound money wasting "service".

    Think post office, prosecutors, police, courts, everything the government does. Municipal cable monopolies have long had competitors trying to break the monopolies; imagine how much better cable TV, phones, and internet service would be if they hadn't been able to bribe cronies.

  • mtrueman||

    "imagine how much better cable TV, phones, and internet service would be if they hadn't been able to bribe cronies."

    Better than 1 Petabit per second? According to wikipedia, that's the speed of Nippon Telephone and Telegraph's transfer over fiber optic cable. NTT is perhaps the ultimate crony on the planet.

  • Sevo||

    Oh, LOOK!
    Here's the idiot Truman arguing for more government!

  • mtrueman||

    Trust me, I don't care how shitty your internet service is or who you blame.

  • Sevo||

    Oh, LOOK!
    Here's the idiot Truman arguing for more government!

  • Sevo||

    BTW, since our lying lefty presumes we should believe his lies, let's do a bit of a search:
    "Japan's incumbent telecommunications carrier, NTT, is claiming a telecommunications speed record, demonstrating a fibre technology able to carry 1 Petabit-per-second - a million gigabits - over a distance of 50 kilometers, using a single fibre.
    The technology - at this stage a research demonstration not ready for commercialization - would serve not end users, but the "trunk" links between exchanges. The carrier selected the 50 km distance as reflecting the typical distance between medium-haul telecommunications exchanges in Japan."
    http://www.abc.net.au/technolo.....598036.htm
    Well, look there! Our lying lefty was lying once again! No, NTT is not delivering that speed, it was a test, back in 2012, and NEC was doing better by then.
    Can you say "lying lefty"? Why, I'm sure you can.\
    Fuck off, asshole.

  • Greg F||

    ... a fibre technology able to carry 1 Petabit-per-second - a million gigabits - over a distance of 50 kilometers, using a single fibre.

    Actually it was a dozen fibers.

  • mtrueman||

    "Fuck off, asshole."

    You're not the only person here to take offense at optical fibres. 1 petabit per second!

  • JohnQ||

    Cutting government will not decrease the demand for power. Government is just what satisfies that demand now. Without elected government, something else would satisfy that demand. You should know how supply and demand work.

  • Greg F||

    Solution: Shrink government. Change the law that companies are not people and cannot give campaign money to politicians, only individuals could contribute.

    So you want to repeal the part of the constitution that gives the "right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances". You need to change your handle.

  • Mark22||

    Change the law that companies are not people and cannot give campaign money to politicians, only individuals could contribute. Use anti-trust/conspiracy law against any company that tries to use government to stifle competition.

    That's been tried many times before and it doesn't work. In fact, it makes things worse. In particular, the more you strengthen, anti-trust/conspiracy the more it will be abused for anti-competitive and illiberal purposes.

    Solution: Shrink government.

    Yes, that is the solution. But the policies you propose (more laws to limit campaign contributions, more anti-trust laws/enforcement) amount to growing government.

    Shrinking government means taking power away from government.

  • HeteroPatriarch||

    How would you enforce the prohibition on companies contributing? A corporation could just distribute a million in profits to each of its 10 partners and each of them could "independently decide" to donate a hundred grand to a malleable candidate. Making laws more complex requires more government, and more government means more power for sale. You can't shrink government by giving government more power.

  • JohnQ||

    The easier way to do it is to anonymize donations. If it's impossible to link a donation to a person/business, there's no path for granting favors. Anonymous donations with aggregation to prevent sending information about the amount or timing of donations would end most of our problems with buying politicians.

  • Egypt Steve||

    Yes, of course. And then this would never, ever happen: that John D. Rockefeller calls up Donald J. Trump and says, "Hey, waddaya say we get drunk and go grab some pussy this weekend. And on, by the way, just watch your campaign committee bank account over the next couple of days. Who knows, you may just see a $10 million donation pop in. Just sayin."

  • Ron||

    "AT&T had spend a lot of money on wired telecom around the USA"

    NO The government taxed phone users to pay AT&T to build the phone system. AT&T did not do it our of the goodness of their heart. BTW that tax is still on every phone bill you get.

  • ||

    quick, let's put the government in charge of health care.

  • Libertarian||

    Imagine a pacemaker the size of a mid-80s cell phone.

  • ||

    I asked a millennial friend the other day if we had socialized medicine in 1968 would we have all the medical advances we have now. he said yes, absolutely, without a doubt. he also thought the Chinese and Russians had been to the moon and said it that they didn't cover that in history classes.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Of course they've been to the moon. They invented the moon!

  • JohnQ||

    The question isn't whether we would have the advances we have now, but whether those advances are helping us. The US still has some of the worst life expectancies in the industrialized world despite having the best tech. That means we're doing doubly poorly. We can't even beat low tech.

  • Egypt Steve||

    fucking A we would have, and more. You want medical advances? You can have them for a fraction of what we pay now. Just give all the money to university medical researchers. You get genious IQ guys working night and day for a Nobel prize, and all they want is money to fund their labs and pay their graduate students.

    Here's why that works. There's a limited number of diseases out there. We know what they are, and you can tell, empirically, whether they've been cured or not. We don't need the kind of "innovation" you get from your Steve Jobs types, who invent products we never thought we'd need. We don't need cures or diagnostic procedures or therapies for diseases that don't exist.

    So gut big pharama; cut off their heads and their balls and give every dime to Johns Hopkins University.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    The main question is, just how differently horror movie tropes would have developed if mobile phones had been in popular use since the 50s or 60s.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    It's coming from inside the CELL!

  • Kandralla||

    While I agree that government did not help the situation, it's a big stretch to say we would have had anything approaching what we currently think of as a cell phone much earlier than we did... in fact I think there's more indication we wouldn't. Long distance, power intensive radio (radar, communications, etc.) and cellular go hand in hand; the defense, civil avaition, and satellite industries were looking to solve the same problems that limited the practicality of cellular telephone and spent plenty of time and money doing it.

    I think it's kind of a dangerous to put much credence in the "what if" game when there's no real evidence to show it would have been any different... especially when you have a real world example in what was happening elsewhere in the world in the late 90's to early 2000's related to wireless and communications.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    You are woefully ignorant of all the things which were invented without government help, and often in the face of government-created monopoly opposition.

    As a very basic instance, the first steam ship in the world was invented in the US (1807?) because James Watt had a patent on steam engines. Many people had ideas for, and even built prototypes of, mobile steam engines with the higher pressure and efficiency required; but Watt shut all of them down. Watt's patent probably stalled steam engine development by 30 years.

    The Wright Brothers had the first-sorta-powered flight in 1903 (it had to use a catapult to take off) and sat on their duffs waiting for orders to come in. Meanwhile everyone else was improving on their own designs and eventually passed the Wrights. Glenn Curtis found a way around one of their patents and the patent war lasted until the US government bought the patent so they could get airplanes for WW I in 1917. The Wrights are not remembered for any further developments today because they had none.

    Telephones, including long distance service, were invented without government help. AT&T was a ruthless unethical company whose competitors were starting to get traction with lawsuits for their behavior, so they begged the government to turn them into an official monopoly and save their ass.

    Government DOES NOT create jobs (except bureaucrats) and DOES NOT innovate. It is a drag on society, the economy, innovation, and all progress.

  • mtrueman||

    "Government DOES NOT create jobs (except bureaucrats) and DOES NOT innovate."

    Government puts a lot of money into expensive, risky ventures like the satellites that give us GPS etc. Kandralla says as much, though you don't appear to have understood.

  • Sevo||

    Oh, LOOK!
    Here's the idiot Truman arguing for more government!

  • mtrueman||

    More government for you? Why not? You seem just the sort of moran who deserves it. Just keep paying your tax. You'll get what's coming to you.

  • Sevo||

    Oh, LOOK!
    Here's the idiot Truman arguing for more government!

  • Sevo||

    Let's kick Truman in the ass again:
    "Government puts a lot of money into expensive, risky ventures like the satellites that give us GPS etc"
    Well, yeah, they monopolize a lot of it waste a ton of money on a lot of it, and idiots like you sho are incapable of doing a search for cites are convinced it's all good. It isn't.

    "Kandralla says as much, though you don't appear to have understood."
    And you, as a lefty liar, fell for it.

  • mtrueman||

    "Well, yeah, they monopolize a lot of it waste a ton of money "

    Yes, innovation is risky and expensive. If you doubt me, ask your favourite cronies at NTT who have transferred data at a speed of 1 petabit per second.

    "and idiots like you sho are incapable of doing a search for cites are convinced it's all good."

    If you are dissatisfied with whatever cites I provide, I give you permission to go and find your own. You are now free to do so.

  • Red Rocks Baiting n Inciting||

    If you doubt me, ask your favourite cronies at NTT who have transferred data at a speed of 1 petabit per second.

    You mean data transfers that they're not actually delivering to customers?

  • mtrueman||

    "You mean data transfers that they're not actually delivering to customers?"

    Careful what you ask for. Delivering data at those speeds to customers is going to take time and money, not to mention diverting yet more precious resources from the uncronied capitalists who dwell in the land of the rising sun.

  • IceTrey||

    GPS was for the military and the government initially nerfed the signal for civilians making it basically useless.

  • mtrueman||

    Some innovative civilians have found a use for GPS.

  • JohnQ||

    Telephones were invented without government help, but most Americans didn't have telephone service until the government stepped in and required it. It wasn't profitable to run phone lines to rural America.

  • Kandralla||

    While I agree that government did not help the situation, it's a big stretch to say we would have had anything approaching what we currently think of as a cell phone much earlier than we did... in fact I think there's more indication we wouldn't. Long distance, power intensive radio (radar, communications, etc.) and cellular go hand in hand; the defense, civil avaition, and satellite industries were looking to solve the same problems that limited the practicality of cellular telephone and spent plenty of time and money doing it.

    I think it's kind of a dangerous to put much credence in the "what if" game when there's no real evidence to show it would have been any different... especially when you have a real world example in what was happening elsewhere in the world in the late 90's to early 2000's related to wireless and communications.

  • Homple||

    Given the non-existence of integrated circuit chips or even transistors, what would a cellular handset looked like in 1945?

  • Homple||

    I missed Kandralla's comment before posting. Sorry.

  • Liberty Lover||

    A large truck with a handset. Even the first cellular phones years later where "Bag phones".

  • Robert||

    I'm t sure about that. Consider the analog computer that was the proximity fuse in AA shells: tube-based. So they could miniaturize & harden tubes when needed.

  • Greg F||

    I'm t sure about that.

    Well I am ... my wife had one (provide by the company).

  • SQRLSY One||

    4 decades ago, we COULD have had cell phones, except for Government Almighty hacks getting in the way?

    During that time, where were the Germans, the Italians, the Canadians, the Japanese, the Brits, yada-yada-yada? Were / are they ALL in thrall the USA Government Almighty hacks, waiting for permission to innovate? I think not!

    Take-away lesson: Globalization means this kind of crap (if it ever happened way-bad in the 1st place) is going to END! Nature-worshipping eco-freaks stand in the way of GMOs and genetically improved humans? Space travel is seriously impaired by "health and safety NAZIs", who prohibit safety /operational / costs improvements because it might harm one or two fluffy bunnies in the ecosphere? They will be left to eat the dust, by the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, Russians, or who knows who, who will NOT bow in obedience to the prevailing winds of ??? eco, politico, regulations-worship, etc., correctness!

  • Robert||

    No, they weren't in the thrall of US gov't. Unfortunately they had their own, & mostly worse than FCC, the state running electric & electronic comms. I was hoping the article would at least summarize that scene.

  • TGoodchild||

    Very interesting article. Also, the plural form of "spectrum" is "spectra."

  • widget||

    Cool history of cell phones.

    There were some technical hurdles that come to mind that would have also impeded cell phone growth even if the FCC was more liberal in allocating frequencies.

    An important one being that the transmit frequency on a modern radio (or cellular phone) does not drift. You take that for granted now. Old radios used to drift and the user would have to tweek a set of knobs on regular basis to keep it on the correct frequency. And he needed a high quality reference frequency generator to calibrate it. Same with the receiver. Anyone old enough to have had a 1960s "transistor" radio would remember he had to adjust the tuning knob every 20 minutes or so to keep the ball game or that godless rock n roll music tuned in. But the transmitter does not give the user instant feedback on his success like the receiver does.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    So industry would have been looking into that sooner. There were a LOT of technical problems to solve. The sooner they started looking, the sooner they would have been solved.

  • widget||

    This assumes that there was a wellspring of scientists, engineers, and technicians who were underemployed or misemployed and should have been working on that specific problem or those closely related. Much of that talent came from WWII vets and they were deployed military defense technology. In a way it did work out. The frequency hopping, spread spectrum technology that your cell phone uses comes from anti-jamming cold war military technology.

  • Sevo||

    widget|6.11.17 @ 9:03PM|#
    "This assumes that there was a wellspring of scientists, engineers, and technicians who were underemployed or misemployed and should have been working on that specific problem or those closely related."

    Nope.
    It assumes the market is better at allocating resources than is a government. I'm pretty sure that's been shown many times.

  • widget||

    I won't argue with that. I jam just saying that the pool of highly skilled people were nearly fully employed in the two or three decades after WWII. Were you to put them on one project you would have had to take them off another. This pool of skilled worked is not bottomless, then or now.

  • Sevo||

    widget|6.12.17 @ 1:25AM|#
    "[...]This pool of skilled worked is not bottomless, then or now."

    Uh, it doesn't have to be bottomless; you just made that up to support a false claim.

  • Greg F||

    An important one being that the transmit frequency on a modern radio (or cellular phone) does not drift. You take that for granted now.

    See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_oscillator

    Old radios used to drift and the user would have to tweek a set of knobs on regular basis to keep it on the correct frequency.

    That is because they used a crude but cheap LCR tuning circuit. You could buy crystal controlled scanners from Radio Shack in the early 70's. CB radios had crystals and armature radio operators used crystal oscillators. Precision frequency control had been solved decades prior.

  • tgrondo||

    What I remember about listening to my transistor radio in the 60's was....

    The signal never seemed to fade when the radio station was playing a commercial.....But...

    When my favorite song came on, or the ball game was on the line.....there went the signal....Arg!!!!!

  • JeremyR||

    On the flip side, we could have had decent LED light bulbs decades earlier, instead of the nearly 100 years of the incandescent. But since they were banned, industry had to come up with better bulbs. And they did. And they are cheap.

    I also think a bit part of the phone thing was battery technology. My father had a cell phone in the early 1980s. It had a battery the size of a small drink cooler.

    The other thing is memory storage. No more moving parts, just flash memory. Again, back in the 80s/90s, home move cameras needed a tape to record to. That took a lot of juice.

    And beyond that, none of this would have happened if AT&T hadn't been broken up. That more than anything was the reason for the stagnation in the telecom industry.

  • widget||

    Homes and building need to be wired with a 12+ (or 24+) volt DC prong to make LEDs and digital appliances really shine on energy efficiency and reliability. That's been obvious for a couple of decades. Instead we have wall warts everywhere. Did the government do something wrong? That's a hard case to make.

  • Greg F||

    Homes and building need to be wired with a 12+ (or 24+) volt DC prong to make LEDs and digital appliances really shine on energy efficiency and reliability.

    Nonsense.

    Instead we have wall warts everywhere.

    And they are almost all switching supplies with efficiency in the 90% range.

  • widget||

    The switch in a switching power supply prevents it from burning up during a short circuit and has nothing to do with its efficiency. But thanks for sharing.

  • Greg F||

    The switch in a switching power supply prevents it from burning up during a short circuit and has nothing to do with its efficiency.

    LOL ...

    Switching power supply

  • Sevo||

    "But since they were banned, industry had to come up with better bulbs"

    LEDs were banned? Got a cite?

  • Greg F||

    On the flip side, we could have had decent LED light bulbs decades earlier, instead of the nearly 100 years of the incandescent. But since they were banned, industry had to come up with better bulbs. And they did. And they are cheap.

    Sorry ... the white LED's were invented well before incandescent bulbs were banned. We bought some in the late 90's to play with and as potential backlight for LCD displays. They were pretty impressive for the amount of light they put out and it seemed pretty obvious, even then, that making light bulbs with them was inevitable. The ban had nothing to do with their development.

  • Live Free Or Diet||

    2 through 83 makes 82 channels.
    210 television markets times 82 TV channels makes 17,220 slots.

  • jennyhannb||

    Protecting its dominant market position meant protecting its customers from competition, so Motorola worked to deter the cellphone revolution. @hotmail login

  • CE||

    Maybe they were right after all. They didn't anticipate the smart phone either, and Apple cleaned their clock.

  • Ron||

    I read in science articles and commenters always espousing how we need the governments involvement and regulations in the science and i always point out that the airplane was not invented by government scientist the first subways were privately funded many older town roads were never built by government most local energy utilites PG&E being one of them were originally private enterprise. the government always regulates after something was invented except for space exploration, they flat out outlawed it, the strictist form of regulation until Bush legalized private investment in space exploration. We may have been to Mars already or used the same tax dollars for something more worth while

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Its central planners had little ability to grasp, let alone balance, the intricate options they faced; to guess how science would develop; to anticipate what products innovators might deliver or what business models competitive forces might create; to predict how consumers would respond to any of this.

    Gee, maybe central planning isn't the way to go... Nah! That's crazy talk.

  • Robert||

    1. What was going on in other countries meanwhile?

    2. Why not the usual nod to Heddy Lamar, even though spread-spectrum wasn't inextricably linked?

  • Hank Phillips||

    "We" had CB radios and walkie-talkies in 1972 already. But under the military dictatorship These States assisted in setting up in Brazil, nobody in that country could have any such thing. Why? Because the law, in its infinite majesty, forbad rich fascist and poor communist alike from owning owning portable transceivers lest they succumb to the temptation to rob banks to finance terrorism. See how "we" benefit by exporting the initiation of force to meddle in the politics of nations too weak to fight back?

  • Bruce 6225||

    This was written about in the 60's. Your government is not about you. It's about them.

  • Chris-87||

    Sorry, but I've gotta disagree with this... While the basic concepts for cell phones may have been imagined in the 1940's the technology didn't exist until the early 1970's. DSP, integrated circuits, and a variety of other bits simply didn't exist yet. A look inside a DynaTac set shows a phone that simply could not have been built much before it actually was built. Comparisons with CB radios and other two way radios just aren't relevant... Cell phones require entirely new methods of call handling and frequency manipulation that simply didn't exist. Car phones existed long before, but due to their very nature were expensive and had sharp limits... Theses things weren't government created problems, they are physics problems that require very clever engineering to overcome, and that engineering didn't produce practical results until sometime in the 1970's.

    Nobody else was running cell phones either until the very late 1970's and early 1980's. If you want to blame the FCC for maybe a five year delay, that's one thing, but a claim of forty years isn't supported by the facts.

    As to the role of the FCC, the basic role of frequency coordination is something that somebody needs to do... While there is no reason that a non-governmental agency can't do it, the FCC is probably one of the more responsive agencies out there. And it's existence isn't some sort of "economic central planning, either.

  • Enemy of the State||

    Forget Star Trek communicators, I want my own phaser!

  • rich__b||

    My grandfather worked for Western Electric (At&t equipment builder) and worked on these cell systems back in the 50's and 60's. And yes, they could have worked (and did). He was very frustrated with At&t slowness and the FCC blockage with cell phones. He never saw a commercial call made since he passed away in 1979. I think he would be both amazed and annoyed with today's cell phones but mostly that it got done finally.

  • DrZ||

    They were from the government and they came to help.

    Help they did.

  • tommhan||

    Reagan told of us of this horror.

  • CE||

    Not to mention the protected and regulated Bell monopoly for wired telephone service, which prevented cell phone entrepreneurs from making inroads in market share and gaining technical experience faster. In third world countries without reliable and cheap land lines, cell phone networks developed faster.

  • libertynorth||

    Makes me wonder what we could have now for new tech but it's been held back.

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