What Mobile Phone Service Preceded Modern Cell Phones?
Answer: Mobile Telephone System (MTS)
Long before modern cellular networks were available (or even technologically viable) people were working on wireless phone systems. The earliest wireless phone systems were essentially simple radio networks, the early ancestors of our modern and far reaching cellular networks.
As early as the 1930s deep-pocketed travelers could place phone calls from and to ocean liners in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in order to reach their friends and business associates. The process was driven by Marine VHF Radio and cost $7 a minute (roughly $100 a minute when adjusted for inflation to today’s money).
By the 1940s Motorola, working with the Bell System, created the first wireless phone service company in the country. The commercial service was called Mobile Telephone System (MTS) and was wildly successful given its limited reach and expense. Like the pricey land-to-ocean-liner systems of the 1930s, the MTS system was based on VHF radio. The MTS system first went live in St. Louis on June 17, 1946.
Although people often joke about the weight and bulk of 1980s era briefcase cellphones, those early cellphones had nothing on the original MTS gear. MTS equipment weighed 80 pounds and required installation in an automobile or physical structure–although given the long history of geeky exploits among scientists and engineers we can only imagine at least one person involved in the production and distribution of the MTS system attempted to build a backpack model. The original service only included 3 channels for the entire city (although it was later expanded to 32 channels).
Placing a phone call using the MTS system was much like placing a traditional operator-driven call. Users would activate their handset which would in turn connect them to an operator in the Bell System. That operator would then direct their call to either a land line or to another mobile handset–given the expense and scarcity of the early MTS units it’s safe to say that the majority of calls were to land lines.
Although MTS systems are still in use in a handful of very rural areas–such as the Yukon and northern British Columbia–the service has completely died out in metropolitan areas. Since equipment for MTS systems is no longer manufactured the majority of systems still in service are at risk of becoming extinct–operators frequently cobble together home made replacement parts and cannibalize parts from older machines to keep the system online. So the next time you pull your tiny cellphone out of your pocket and enjoy a crystal clear, private, and inexpensive phone call, give thanks that the days of 80 pound radio phones are long behind us.