1946: First Mobile Telephone Call

First mobile phones
A trucker rolls with one of the first mobile phones, used in Chicago.

June 17, 1946 - A driver in St. Louis, Mo., pulled out a handset from under his car's dashboard, placed a phone call and made history. It was the first mobile telephone call.

A team including Alton Dickieson and D. Mitchell from Bell Labs and future AT&T CEO H.I. Romnes, worked more than a decade to achieve this feat. By 1948, wireless telephone service was available in almost 100 cities and highway corridors. Customers included utilities, truck fleet operators and reporters. However, with only 5,000 customers making 30,000 weekly calls, the service was far from commonplace.

That "primitive" wireless network could not handle large call volumes. A single transmitter on a central tower provided a handful of channels for an entire metropolitan area. Between one and eight receiver towers handled the call return signals. At most, three subscribers could make calls at one time in any city. It was, in effect, a massive party line, where subscribers would have to listen first for someone else on the line before making a call.

Expensive and far from "mobile", the service cost $15 per month, plus 30 to 40 cents per local call, and the equipment weighed 80 pounds. Just as they would use a CB microphone, users depressed a button on the handset to talk and released it to listen.

Improved technology after 1965 brought a few more channels, customer dialing and eliminated the cumbersome handset. But capacity remained so limited that Bell System officials rationed the service to 40,000 subscribers guided by agreements with state regulatory agencies. For example, 2,000 subscribers in New York City shared just 12 channels, and typically waited 30 minutes to place a call. It was wireless, but with "strings" attached.

The Cellular Solution

Something better — cellular telephone service — had been conceived in 1947 by D.H. Ring at Bell Labs, but the idea was not ready for prime time. The system comprised multiple low-power transmitters spread throughout a city in a hexagonal grid, with automatic call handoff from one hexagon to another and reuse of frequencies within a city. The technology to implement it didn't exist, and the frequencies needed were not available. The cellular concept lay fallow until the 1960s, when Richard Frenkiel and Joel Engel of Bell Labs applied computers and electronics to make it work.

AT&T turned their work into a proposal to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in December 1971. After years of hearings, the FCC approved the overall concept, but licensed two competing systems in each city.

In 1978, AT&T conducted FCC-authorized field trials in Chicago and Newark, N.J. Four years later, the FCC granted commercial licenses to an AT&T subsidiary, Advanced Mobile Phone Service Inc. (AMPS). AMPS was then divided among the local companies as part of the planning for divestiture. Illinois Bell opened the first commercial cellular system in October 1983. AT&T re-entered the cellular business by acquiring McCaw Cellular in 1994, the same year that President Clinton awarded Frenkiel and Engel the National Medal of Technology.

Today, AT&T Wireless (AWS) operates one of the largest digital wireless networks in North America. With more than 17 million subscribers, including partnerships and affiliates, and revenues exceeding $10 billion, AT&T Wireless is committed to being among the first to deliver the next generation of wireless products and services. AWS offers customers high-quality wireless communications services, whether mobile or fixed, voice or data, to businesses or consumers, in the United States and internationally.

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