The beginning of modern mobile communication 30 years ago, in the summer of 1992, was a difficult birth. The then Minister of Post Christian Schwarz-Schilling (CDU) already in December 1989 issued the first licenses for digital mobile networks of Deutsche Telekom (D1) and Mannesmann Group (D2).
However, it took several months to prepare technically to launch both D-networks, to set up radio masts and transmitters. Most of all, however, there was a lack of suitable cell phones.
On July 1, 1992, Telekom finally invited people to officially launch its D1 network. Mannesmann Mobilfunk initially wanted to start broadcasting two weeks later. However, as a result of the PR coup, the introduction of D2 was spontaneously postponed to June 30, 1992, to be one day ahead of its competitor Telekom in the books of history.
At that time, “D2-Privat” was not able to sell any mobile phones to its customers. The first D2 customer was from Bochum and had previously purchased one of the first “cell phones” based on the GSM standard, the Ericsson GH-172, from an electronics store.
Transmission masts are a visible part of the mobile communication infrastructure, here the 5G mobile communication mast from Vodafone
Lots of money for bread on the ear
The legendary “bone” the size of wholemeal bread soon won the market, the Motorola International 3200. Today’s head of technology at Vodafone Germany, Tanja Richter, recalls: “The handy phone weighed more than 500 grams, had a battery for up to 120 minutes of talk time, and cost around 3,000 DM. It was a small fortune at the time. “
Richter began her career at Mannesmann Mobilfunk and joined Vodafone with the company’s acquisition in 2000. Initially, only a few people in Germany could share the initial enthusiasm for digital mobile communication, also because the prices were very high.
Telekom and Mannesmann started with minimum prices below 2 Deutsches, or around € 1 today. The basic fee was over 70 marks. Flat rates that cost only a fraction are common today.
Early hardware shortage
In April 1993, less than a year after launch, several hundred thousand participants were already moving on the two D networks. And the growth could have been much more dynamic if there were not enough cell phones. Mannesmann’s then-head of technology, Georg Schmitt, translated the abbreviation of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) digital standard with a deep sigh, “God send Mobiles!”.
But cell phones not only fell from the sky, they had to be bought from Motorola, Ericsson, Nokia, Siemens and others. But at least the prices have dropped. The new service has made mobile phones especially attractive to young people. We are talking about SMS (Short Message Service) with its 160 characters.
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The first SMS with the message “Happy Holidays” was sent to Vodafone employee Richard Jarvis on December 3, 1992. In 1994, Mannesmann and Telekom introduced SMS to their customers. Five years later, Germany has already sent about 3.6 billion SMSes. Duden admitted defeat and included the word “writing” in his vocabulary.
In 1999 alone, the number of mobile customers in Germany doubled to 48 million. The success ultimately cost Mannesmann his independence: British giant Vodafone took over the Düsseldorf-based company in 2000 after several months of defensive fighting for 190 billion euros.
In the mid-1990s, two more licenses for mobile telephony were issued in Germany – the E networks were created with the providers E-Plus and Telefónica O2. E-Plus came under the Telefónica umbrella in 2014, turning the duopoly of the first years into a head-to-head race between three suppliers.
And with the license auction for the fifth generation of mobile connectivity (5G) in 2019, a new player 1 & 1 Drillisch entered the stage, who had not yet established his own network. The market as a whole is huge: last year, the number of mobile phone calls in Germany rose to 161 million, so that, purely mathematically, there are almost two calls per person.
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upset the market
The premiere of the iPhone in 2007 turned out to be a decisive moment in the history of digital mobile communication. The first iPhone broadcast only on the relatively sluggish EDGE network. But the “Jesus Phone” of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs helped smartphones achieve a breakthrough with innovative features and a new kind of user interface.
The iPhone has also changed the balance of power – from suppliers to device manufacturers from the USA and Asia. With the first Samsung Galaxy, the duel between the iPhone and the Google Android operating system began in 2009 and continues to shape the world of smartphones.
The success of free messengers such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Apple iMessage, Signal, Telegram, Line and Threema also had a no less drastic impact on the activities of mobile operators. They overtook SMS years ago and destroyed a billion-dollar business.
Public transport passengers now buy tickets shortly before boarding – using smartphones, of course
Battle of the suppliers
For this reason, today’s telecommunications companies need to look for economic success not only in their core business, but also in other areas. After all, the online stores and shops of Telekom, Vodafone and Telefónica that sell mobile phones and related additional services such as mobile phone insurance throw a lot of money into the checkout.
At the same time, providers are making a new attempt to adequately participate in the economic success of large Internet corporations. In a joint appeal in mid-February, Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefónica and French operator Orange called on major platforms to partially cover the costs of Europe’s digital infrastructure.
According to the appeal, data traffic is growing by as much as 50 percent per year – with more than 70 percent of all data traffic coming from video streaming, games and social media. These platforms would benefit from highly scalable business models at low cost. But whether providers will ever see money from major ISPs is unknown.