According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the “most durable” cell telephone number dates to 02 August 1985. The provider? Ameritech Mobile Communications.
Ameritech Mobile Communications launched the first U.S. cellular network in 1983 when executive Bob Barnett made a phone call from a car parked near Soldier Field in Chicago.
Note that “from a car” caveat. Those early phones were ‘mobile’ only in the sense of it-is-hardwired-in-your-car. They were a far cry from the Dick-Tracy-like device I’m wearing on my arm.
The network (infrastructure) provider: AT&T on behalf of Illinois Bell.
In October 1981, the FCC announced that it would allocate two swaths of frequencies in the 800MHz range to cellular telephony, and would award two licenses in each market — one reserved for an incumbent wireline (i.e. telephone) company, and one for a non-wireline competitor. AT&T and its subsidiary Illinois Bell opened the first modern cellular system in Chicago in October 1983.
A commercial cell phone, the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, retailed for $3,995. That’s almost $12,000 today!
Bell engineers had begun experimenting with cellular networks in the 1940s. It would be 1973 before a Motorola employee used a prototype cellular phone to call the headquarters of Bell Labs in New Jersey from downtown New York City. The phone weighed 2.5 pounds!
Proving, perhaps, that war can spur innovation, about 30 years earlier (on 17 June 1946) AT&T/Bell had demonstrated the first (non-cellular) limited mobile service in the US. By 1948, it had about 5,000 customers.
Even that wasn’t the first “mobile” phone, depending upon how you define “mobile” and “phone.” At the end of World War I, the the German National Railway tested wireless phones on military trains between Berlin and Zossen. By 1926, “first class rail passengers on the route between Berlin and Hamburg could make calls from the moving train.”
However, after the FCC allocated radio spectrum to telephony, cell phone service spread quickly.
“It’s still pretty rare to see someone using a telephone in a car. But it’s about to become a lot more common.” That’s how NPR host Jim Angle introduced a piece on Nov. 5, 1983, titled “Cellular Phones Are Completely Mobile” — the earliest mention of the term found in NPR’s archives.
Two years after that Chicago phone call, the New York Times (which had ignored the news in 1983) was lamenting the need for an ‘out of service area’ message.
According to Pew Research, 97% Americans owned a cellphone of some type in 2021. In 2011, it was 35%.