It’s 2021 and we’re in the era of 5G. The fifth generation of network technology is considered the most superior form of communication today, not only for mobile phones but also for industries. But 30 years ago, no one would have imagined that our devices would be able to talk to each other over nothing but thin air. Providing lightning-fast internet speeds, enabling everything from grassroots level access to the development of smart cities, was not on anyone’s radar. They were more concerned with how we humans will communicate with each other over a cellular network. That’s how the first GSM, aka 2G call happened 30 years ago today.
This was the one phone call that changed everything.
Nokia has always been at the forefront of network technology, and 30 years ago, it enabled the first official GSM call between former Finnish Prime Minister Harri Holkeri and Deputy Mayor of Tampere Kaarina Suonio. This was the one phone call that changed everything and served as a catalyst for network technology to come for years.
It was GSM that eventually led to the SMS and data services that we take for granted today. It was also the birth of cellphones as we know them.
In a blog post reminiscing the call, Nokia’s current President and CEO, Pekka Lundmark, recalls how he was nicknamed the “Chief worrier” as he and his team worked round the clock for two years to facilitate the first 2G phone call on July 1, 1991.
The first successful test call was achieved at 4 AM on March 27, 1991.
He was then account manager at Radiolinja, the Finnish network provider and customer for Nokia’s GSM technology that enabled the call. The race for developing the first commercially viable network was on and Radiolinja (now Elisa) was still awaiting its approved operator’s license.
“The first successful test call was achieved at 4 AM on March 27, 1991. If you look closely at the black-and-white photograph of Kurt Nordman, CEO of Helsinki Telephone Association, making another test call later that day, you can see a young man standing at the back looking very much like the Chief Worrier/zombie,” Lundmark writes in his post.
The official calls made at the event used a backup analog system.
All eyes were on Pekka and team when the final demonstration for the 2G call took place on July 1 that year.
PM Holkeri called Mayor Suonio from his car phone, remarking that the reception was as clear as talking to “someone in the next room.” The two leaders also discussed the benefits of digital GSM technology, including superior voice quality and security and the fact that the phone’s identity is in the SIM card, making it easy for consumers to choose the product they like.
The Nokia CEO reveals that at the time, the world didn’t realize that the official calls made at the event used a backup analog system. “I guess it’s safe to admit this 30 years on and now that there are no question marks over the viability of GSM,” he comments.
In the year that followed, Nokia launched its first GSM mobile phone, the Nokia 1011. 3G, 4G, and 5G networks have followed since then, but it’s always good to remember where the digital revolution started. It was in a three-minute call that changed the world.