‘God send mobiles’

"God send mobiles"

Both Mannesmann and Radiolinja, as pioneers, also had to contend with the same problem: how to get hold of phones. 

Mats Köhlmark recalls: “The operators’ initial low profile was probably because of the lack of telephones. I remember that at the time of the launch, there were only two phone models that worked in Germany, one from Motorola and one from Orbitel. Call times were limited because the speech codecs collapsed after a minute or so and it started to sound like someone was crumpling metal.”

The head of Mannesmann, Georg Schmitt, “was famous for his brusque approach and he was desperate”, to quote Meurling & Jeans. Schmitt turned to ERA and after hectic negotiations it agreed to supply GSM phones, an enormous order of 30,000 that had to be delivered before the end of 1992. While waiting, Schmitt put unceasing pressure on Ericsson’s production units in Sweden and made the staff guarantee his deliveries personally. Schmitt, saying he had finally understood what GSM stood for, coined one memorable expression: “God Send Mobiles!”

To meet the order, ERA used an earlier HotLine model, the Olivia, and filled it with newly designed GSM electronics to create the Olivia Digital. Jan Uddenfeldt recalls: “Our previous experimental GSM system helped us to think correctly. We were also greatly helped by our success in developing a signal processor that was ours entirely.”

A photo finish

Nils Rydbeck adds: “We aimed to have a GSM phone from the very beginning. So unlike our competitors we had nothing to demonstrate in advance and we really got told off by the management for that. But in the final spurt we won the race – even though it was a photo finish. We got all the chips into the phone but there wasn’t even room for a pin after that.”

Delivery of the first handheld GSM telephones started three weeks after the stipulated date during the autumn of 1992 but Schmitt did not invoke the penalty clause for the delay.

This began Mannesmann’s spectacular success as an operator, and GSM phones began to claim the status of core products at Ericsson. Meurling & Jeans write that this was largely thanks to Schmitt’s persistence.

Things were more or less the same for Nokia. Heikki Ahava says: “There were quite a lot of executives who did not believe we would be able to produce competitive handheld GSM telephones for many years to come. But the attitude in the development department was that we were going to succeed. We started with one of our carphones and worked out ways of getting GSM functions inside its case. You could call it a ‘quick and dirty’ solution but it worked.” On November 10, 1992, Nokia launched its first GSM telephone, the 1011.

No agreement

There is no agreement about which of the two competitors was first with its handheld GSM phone. The answer depends on what criteria you use. “What I dare claim with certainty is that we were the first to deliver major volumes of GSM phones to customers,” says Rydbeck.

Kurt Nordman says that Radiolinja, during its first years as an operator, was constantly chasing Nokia, getting small shipments of specially designed phones so it at least had something for the keenest customers.

The battle for the GSM market started in earnest, in the autumn of 1992. This was when GSM networks opened in the Nordic countries and also in France, Germany, Italy and Portugal.

The first international roaming agreement was signed on June 17, 1992, between the Finnish telecom agency and Vodafone in the UK.

 

 

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn

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