Australia's mobile phone network has come a long way

OLD SCHOOL: There are more than 30 million active mobile phone services in Australia.
OLD SCHOOL: There are more than 30 million active mobile phone services in Australia.

Now normally I don't like to blow my own trumpet but...toot toot. This week saw the 30th anniversary of the mobile phone network being switched on in my home city.

My business had the privilege of enabling the very first connection in that city.

I had started my first electronics business the previous year but it was on a trip to the Adelaide Grand Prix in November 1989 that school friend, Daryl Coxon, told me all about this new concept of mobiles.

He said there was probably a market in it for me.

Now, with almost 80,000 mobile phone sales under my belt, I think Daryl was right.

It was in 1973 that Dr Martin Cooper, working for Motorola, famously called his chief competitor, Dr Joel Engel at AT&T: "Joel, this is Marty. I'm calling you from a cell phone."

In August 1981, Telecom Australia launched the Public Automatic Mobile Phone System (PAMTS) with three towers in Melbourne.

The mobile numbers started with 007 which seemed appropriate for the peak of 14,000 subscribers as the entire concept seemed like something from the movies.

This system was shut down in 1993.

The Advanced Mobile Phone System (AMPS) was switched on in February 1987 with an extravagant event at the Opera House with skydivers and government ministers.

Most of the early models were installed in vehicles with the option of a portable 'bag phone' or a too-big-to-fit-in-your-hand handheld version.

This 1G network was shut down in September 2000.

The first phone I sold was an NEC P3 handheld with a phone number of 018 63 62 62. Optus and Vodafone entered the Australian market in 1992 and the three carriers had a combined peak of 2.6 million analogue subscribers.

GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) was the standard developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute and was chosen by Australia when it was switched on in April 1993 and enjoyed a 25 year life and a peak of 15.9 million users.

This was 2G and was our first 'digital' system. While the service offered additional features, such as text messaging, the range wasn't as extensive as AMPS.

CDMA was introduced in September 1999 mainly to cater for regional users.

CDMA offered range similar to analogue with services similar to digital and reached a peak of 1.8 million subscribers before being closed down in July 2012.

The number of mobiles in Australia reached a significant milestone in February 2001 - 10.7 million active services - surpassing the number of landlines.

As data services became more important, the search for speed led to the 3G network. It was turned on in Australia in April 2003 and was a preview of how our phone usage would start to change.

Better data speeds allowed different functionality which eventually led to the smartphone. The 3G network is slated for shut down in Australia in 2024.

After the BlackBerry and then the revolution of the iPhone announcement in 2007, the pressure of data traffic led to the launch of the 4G network in September 2011.

This is still the network that most Australians are using today...until they buy their new phone to take advantage of the increased speed and reduced latency offered by the 5G network which launched in May 2019.

We currently have over 30 million combined active mobile services in Australia - more than the number of people.

It has been an exciting journey to witness the introduction of a range of services at the coal face over those last thirty years.

Tell me when you started using your first mobile - and the model - at ask@techtalk.digital.

  • Mathew Dickerson is the founder of regional tech and communications company Axxis Technology