Tuesday, 09 August 2011 14:00

30 years ago today: Australia's first mobile call


Although the history of mobile phone calls of various types spans decades, with a limited yet commercial mobile service available in St Louis in 1946, the first 'modern' handheld mobile phone call made in the US in 1973 and not until 1985 in the UK, Australia's first mobile call was thirty years ago today - August 9, 1981.

If you want to take a bit of a trip down memory lane of mobile memories most readers are likely too young to have been in a position to personally remember, Wikipedia has an interesting history of mobile phones, including calls made to obviously 'mobile' cruise ships from US landlines in the 1930s.

iTWire's telecommunications expert, Stuart Corner, also has his own take on the 30-year anniversary along with a fascinating anecdote about Australia's 250,000th analog AMPS mobile phone subscriber that you should read for yourself!

There was even a commercial mobile telephone service in the US city of St Louis in 1946, with a more advanced version coming out in 1964, bring more channels and automated connections.

It wasn't until the 60s and 70s that the work was done to enable the beginnings of the analogue mobile market that has evolved into the 3G/NextG and now 4G/LTE networks that have started arriving.

Australia's journey to today's world of mobile phones outnumbering people in Australia started definitively on August 9, 1981, when the first Australian mobile call was made.

It was done using a now ancient but then ultra-modern in-car phone, which was ultra anti-Zoolanderesque at a whopping 14 kilos, had a humongous 45cm handset, and cost $5000 dollars form 1981, which Telstra says is $17,000 in 2011 dollars.

Not only is that a heck of a lot of inflation we can thank our successive governments for not preventing, it's the equivalent of at least 17 32GB iPhone 4 handsets at AUD $999 each, or 22 if you buy them from Hong Kong at HKD $5888, which at today's GFC Mark II-depressed exchange rate is AUD $746 a pop - up from $700 only last week.

Naturally, phone coverage back in 1981 was a fly speck compared with today's 2.1m square kilometre-covering Next G network, but it did at least cover 'the greater Melbourne area' at first, which was still quite a bit of a major Australian city at the time.

Sydney was connected in December 1981, Brisbane joined the mobile bandwagon in 1983 with the rest of Australia's capital cities joining mobility city by 1985.

There were no laws against using mobile phones in cars then either, because that was the whole point - you could only, at first, install one in a car. Being 1981, it had the height of 1981 technology within - the storage of a huuuuuge 16 numbers in what was obvious a massive 16 number database.

1981 technology was sending Space Shuttles to orbit around the earth, too, but 16 numbers wasn't just a big deal in those days, it was the only deal - plus you obviously had to have your own written phone/address book or just a good memory if there were more than 16 people you wanted to call while on the go. 

The phone even had the equivalent of a 'silent mode' - with either your car's horn set to honk in the event of an incoming call, or alert you silently with the flashing of your car's headlights.

Telstra's Executive Director of Networks and Access Technologies, Mike Wright, was a 'graduate engineer' in 1981, and by 1985 was overseeing 'installation of the first mobile network exchange in Brisbane.'

Mr Wright said: 'Back in 1981 I never imagined there would be more mobile devices in Australia than people, and that they could be used to watch live TV, someday feature 3D content and become a critical way to how we connect.

'We called the first Telstra network the 007 Network because that was the number range it used and while in today's terms it was more like a 'Zero-G' network, it was the foundation of Australia's modern mobile phone industry. In just 30 years we're now building a 4G network, that's five generations of mobile evolution so far in my career', concluded Mr Wright.

Continued on page two, please read on!

Telstra has released some stats and some survey results on how mobile were and are being used:

Telstra says that in 30 years, the mobile phone has become ubiquitous. Quoting from Telstra:

Coverage - in August 1981 the mobile network was limited to greater Melbourne (the service launched in Sydney in December 1981, Brisbane in 1983 and reached all Australian capital cities by 1985) - and today the Telstra mobile network covers 2.1 million square kilometers and reaches more than 99 per cent of the population.   

Customers - approximately 1300 customers in Sydney and Melbourne used the mobile network in its first year, compared to today where there are an estimated 22 million mobile phone services in Australia. In 2010/11 Telstra connected more than one million mobile services in just nine months.

Texts - in 1981 no one had heard of 'texting' whereas in 2009/10 Telstra customers sent 9.4 billion text messages.
Mobile internet - in 1981 using a mobile network for internet access wasn't even imagined, now Telstra's mobile broadband network supports over 10 million internet capable phones, tablets and data cards.

Base stations - in 1981 there were three base stations in Melbourne and five base stations in Sydney, today there are more than 7,400 base stations across Australia.

Costs - in 1981 it cost $4995 plus a $350 installation fee to purchase a mobile phone compared to today where a customer can buy a phone from Telstra for less than $35 outright.

Commemorating this anniversary, Telstra today revealed consumer survey findings from a sample of 1250 'working Australians' by its favourite consumer surveyor, Pure Profile, showing how Australians use their mobiles to connect. It found:              

- 50 per cent of Australians feel panic stricken within five minutes when they think they lost their mobile phone; 25 per cent panic after less than a minute.

- Nearly one third of Gen Y checks their mobile phones in the mornings before they use the bathroom, have breakfast, or go online.

- Nearly half of Australians rank mobile phones as the innovation they value the most, more than the desktop computer to laptop and the oven to microwave.

Telstra has a slideshow of marketing photos and a link to a YouTube video of an early mobile phone advertisement available here.



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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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