An excerpt from
Bringing Information to People: Celebrating the Wireless Decade
by Kathi Ann Brown (1993)
Sidebar: "Turning on the Future: October 13, 1983"
On October 13, 1983, a small crowd gathered at Soldier Field in Chicago to witness history in the making. As curious onlookers watched and listened, Bob Barnett, president of Ameritech Mobile Communications, Inc., placed a call from a Chrysler convertible to the grandson of Alexander Graham Bell in Germany. Their transatlantic conversation marked the inaugural call of the nation's first citywide commercial cellular system. Thirty-six years after its conception, cellular telephony had finally arrived in the marketplace.
The road to Soldier Field had been a long one, filled with twists and turns in technology and government regulation. Since 1947, AT&T had been quietly promoting its concept for a cellular telephone system. But not until 1962 did the company launch propagation and interference tests in Philadelphia (PA) and Camden (NJ), as well as create a field laboratory in the Newark (NJ) area. The trials were designed to demonstrate that cellular could function in the erratic real-world environment of radio transmission.
In March 1977, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted AT&T an experimental license to field test its Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS), Bell's name for its cellular system. AMPS engineers set up ten cells, each about eight miles in radius, covering approximately 2,000 square miles of metropolitan Chicago with 136 voice channels. At the heart of the AMPS experiment was the central controller, a specially programmed ACE electronic switching system at Oak Park (IL). Telecom manufacturers OKI and E.F. Johnson supplied the basic black phone units, while Motorola supplied an upgraded unit loaded with additional options.
In early 1978, 185 AMPS-development personnel were assigned mobile units to test in their daily travels. As the months passed and results came in, both AT&T and the FCC were satisfied that the system was ready for a full-fledged try-out. In the autumn of 1978, Bell launched tariffed mobile service to a maximum of 2,500 customers.
The service test phase provided a glimpse of cellular's future success. Some potential customers offered up to $2000 to become test participants, a sign of the keen frustration generated by the city's jammed mobile telephone channels.
The AMPS experiment also taught valuable technical lessons. Engineers quickly learned about "holes" in the coverage area where calls were likely to be dropped during hand-off. They also received a crash course in rush hour mobile phone use, and reengineered the system to handle overload problems.
Pleased by the field test, AT&T was anxious to begin offering its cellular service on a commercial basis. But Bell had to wait until the FCC established guidelines for regulating cellular. After long debate, the FCC outlined its licensing approach in May 1981. On October 6, 1983, the Commission granted the pioneer Chicago cellular system (now owned by Ameritech) a commercial license. One week later, the historic call between Soldier Field and Germany formally launched the commercial cellular industry...and the wireless decade.