Cell phone industry celebrates its 25th birthday

25 years ago today, the first ever commercial cell phone call was made. Oh, how times have changed.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read

From the Motorola "Brick" to the iPhone, cell phones have certainly come a long way in the past quarter of a century.

The Motorola DynaTAC handset was the first commercial cell phone. It weighed about 2.5 pounds and cost nearly $4,000

It was 25 years ago today, October 13, 1983, that the very first commercial cell phone call was made. Bob Barnett, president of Ameritech Mobile communications, called Alexander Graham Bell's nephew from Chicago's Soldier Field using a Motorola DynaTAC handset, referred to as the "Brick" because of its hefty size.

Weighing in at 2.5 pounds, the phone wasn't exactly portable. And it was expensive, retailing for about $3,995. Cell phone service back in those days was also pricey, costing $50 a month just for the service, plus 40 cents a minute at peak hours and 24 cents a minute at off-peak times.

Cell phones in those days were gadgets for the super wealthy. But today, cell phones have become an essential part of our culture. A lot of this has to do with the affordability of the phones and the service plans. Today, cell phones often come free with a two-year service contract and many plans start for as little as $40 a month including free nights and weekends and unlimited long distance and local calling.

The iPhone, which debuted in the summer of 2007, is a game-changer in the cell phone industry in terms of design and user interface. Apple

But even advanced devices like Apple's iPhone are now selling with a subsidy for $200. This is an amazingly cheap price, considering the advanced functionality of the phone compared to the nearly $4,000 DynaTAC handset sold in the 1980s.

What a difference 25 years makes. In 1984, a year after Ameritech Mobile launched its service, the company had signed up about 12,000 subscribers. Today, AT&T, the largest mobile operator in the U.S. has 72.9 million customers.

As of June, there were about 262.7 million mobile subscribers in the U.S. or about 84 percent of the population, according to the wireless industry association CTIA. Phones have become so pervasive in today's society that nearly half of all children between the ages of 8 and 12 years own cell phones, according to market research firm Nielsen Mobile.

Cell phones have even started making serious headway in replacing old landline phones. Nielsen also recently reported that more than 20 million households in America have cut the cord and are going wireless for their home phone service.

But today's cell phones are more than just home phone replacements. They are also used to take pictures, listen to music, surf the Internet, and send short text messages back and forth. In fact, a recent survey indicates that Americans are now texting more than they are talking on their cell phones. For the second quarter of 2008, U.S. mobile subscribers sent and received on average 357 text messages per month, compared with making and receiving 204 phone calls a month, according to Nielsen.

Of course, text messaging instead of talking seems to be a generational phenomenon with teens making up the bulk of texters. People over age 45 still tend to talk on the phone more than they text.

But services like text messaging and other data services are where carriers expect to make their money going forward. Since wireless operators started selling plans that offering a set number of voice minutes that included local, long distance, and roaming calls, the price of voice has steadily declined.

To help provide more growth for the industry, carriers have invested billions of dollars to build new, faster networks. These 3G wireless networks are what carriers use today to provide the Web surfing, emailing, mobile TV viewing, and music downloading services that some customers enjoy today. So far, these services make up a small percentage of total carrier revenue. But data usage is growing.

New phones like Apple's iPhone are making it easier to surf the Internet. And services that use GPS to help pinpoint subscribers' locations is making data services even more relevant for mobile users. Advertising is even coming to phones to help offset the cost of new services.

The next challenge for wireless operators is building even faster networks to keep up with growing demand for more data services on mobile phones. The next leap in wireless will be to new 4G wireless broadband networks, which operators claim will rival connection rates experienced by some wired DSL services.

Sprint Nextel just launched the first market using its 4G wireless broadband network that uses a technology called WiMax. The first city to get this service is Baltimore. And the company plans to launch the service in other cities such as Chicago and Philadelphia very soon. AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the No.1 and No.2 wireless operators in the U.S., don't expect to roll out a 4G wireless network until at least 2011.

With these new networks on the way and even cooler phones in the pipeline, it's hard to imagine what the next 25 years could bring in wireless.