Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Cell Phone

Yesterday I bought a cell phone. Hard as it is to believe, I have never owned one before. Quite simply, I really didn't see the need for one. But in a world where being connected is becoming more and more important, where pay phones are becoming harder and harder to find when away from home, I thought it wise that I finally buy one.

The cell phone is the culmination of many developments over the years. Ultimately, the cellular phone can be traced back to 1946 when AT&T introduced mobile car phones to St. Louis. At that time the car phones relied on one transmitter that would cover the entire city. This created problems in that there was no way the system could keep up with demand. There were always more users on the waiting list than there were people actually using car phones.

Fortunately, Bell Laboratories came up with a solution. They realised that by reusing frequences in small cells (in layman's terms, service areas), they could allow for greater usage of mobile phones. It is because of these "cells" or usage areas that cellular phones got their name. To this end AT&T proposed to the FCC that the UHF spectrum from 470 - 890 MHz so that the use of mobile phones would increase. Sadly, the FCC decided to limit the spectrum to a point that mobile phone usage would remain low for decades.

It was not until 1968 that the FCC had second thoughts about their decision. Both AT&T and Bell Labs proposed a system in which low power, broadcast towers would use only a small fraction of the frequencies in the system and would cover a small area or "cell." Calls would esentially go from tower to tower to reach their destination. It should then not be surprising that it wasn't long before someone invented what is now considered the first modern mobile phone. In April 1973, Dr. Martin Cooper, then working for Motorola, made the first call from a cell phone. That call went to the head of research at Bell Labs, Joel Engel. Ny 1977 AT&T and Bell Labs would create a protype for cellular systems. They would test it a year later in Chicago. In 1982 the FCC at last approved cellular phone service. Ameritech (now Cingular) would be the first company to offer cellular phone service (that was also in Chicago).

Sadly, even though the FCC had finally granted approval to cell phones, they would still be slow to move with regards to improving service. By 1987 there were at least one million cell phone users in the United States. As a solution, in that same year, the FCC decided that new techonologies could be in the 800 MHz band. As a result, the various cellular companies looked to various other systems (among them digital and other techonologies such as Code Division Multiple Access--it's easier to say than to explain...) than the analog system in use since the late Seventies. In 1991 the Telecommunications Industry Association (a trade association for communications technology) created the TDMA Interim Standard 54, new set of specifications that would allow for more efficient cell phone usage.

Since that time, cell phone usage has boomed. In fact, it is now unusal to find someone who doesn't own a cell phone (yes, I know I was an anachronism...). Of course, the phones themselves have changed a good deal. In the late Eighties the phones were absolutely huge compared to today's phones. Just watch the movie American Psycho for a look at an early cell phone--it's bigger than most hardline phones today! And in the old days one could do only one thing with his or her cell phone--make a phone call. As far as size goes, today's cell phones remind me of the communicators on the original Star Trek (if mine was a flip phone I'd be tempted to utter "Beam me up, Scotty"). And one can do more than call people on them. A cell phone user can send text messages, take photos, make videos, play games, surf the Net, play music (who needs an iPod?)... I have to wonder that twenty years from now the phones won't be able to boil water and take out the trash...

Of course, the cell phone has become part of pop culture. On The X-Files they were an integral part of the show (all those phones are looking pretty dated now). Cell phones played a central role in the moive Cellular, released in 2004. If there can be little doubt that cell phones are now firmly entrenched in Anglo-American pop culture, one need look no further than Stephen King's latest novel. In Cell: a Novel, it is cell phones that are responsible for the end of the world as we know it....

At any rate, I am glad that I finally got a cell phone. I cannot picture using it nearly as much as some people do, but at least it is there when I need it. Unlike a dinosaur like me, I suspect the children of today will wonder how we ever did without cell phones.

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