40 Years Ago this Month the World’s First Portable Cell Phone was Deployed on a Commercial Cellular Network

Spencer Trask & Co. Documents the Origin of One of Humanity’s Most Important Innovations

Forty years ago this month the world’s first portable cellular phone service was introduced in Sweden by Comvik (now Millicom International Cellular SA). This defining moment in mobile history occurred in September 1981 when Comvik offered its new cellular service to subscribers. During the previous summer, the firm converted an existing mobile truck dispatch system to a semi-automated cellular system designed by E.F. Johnson and Millicom. This first portable cellular offering was launched a month before the government-run Nordic Mobile Telephone service, making Sweden the first country in the world with competitive cellular operators.

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A cell service prior to Comvik came from Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT) in Tokyo, but it was considered more of a technical curiosity than a serious commercial entity. Though it utilized a cellular architecture, the NTT mobile phone was firmly affixed to the car. In contrast, Comvik made available the first cellular phone that could be untethered from the vehicle. Designed by E.F. Johnson & Co., Millicom and Nils Martensson, the “lunchbox,” as it was known, was a radical innovation at the time and it would be another two years before the commercial introduction of the DynaTAC 8000X (i.e. the Motorola “Brick”) in Baltimore/Washington in December 1983. So, contrary to popular belief, the Brick was not the first portable cell phone.

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Spencer Trask & Co. Chairman Kevin Kimberlin, the early investor in Millicom who helped structure its first funding, reflected on this achievement stating, “The pioneers at Comvik and Millicom led the way to our mobile lifestyle today. They cracked the code for delivering the portable cell phone in the real world, a pivotal event in what became a technological, cultural and social revolution.”

Starting with this seminal launch, the commercialization of mobile telephony has grown dramatically. As for mass adoption and value, there are 10.4 billion mobile connected devices according to GMSA, and the industry generated $1 trillion of revenues in 2020. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, mobile service subscribers spent $490 billion last year using mobile money. Worldwide, mobile connectivity delivered $4.4 trillion in economic activity, some 5.1% of global GDP.

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