The first million GSM subsribers

During 1993, the number of GSM subscribers all over the world finally rose above 1 million. By the end of the year, 70 operators from 48 countries had signed the MoU and 25 roaming agreements had been signed.

The commercial breakthrough came in 1994. A year later, the number of GSM subscribers exceeded 10 million: twice as many mobile phones were sold in 1995 as during the entire 1980s. The GSM Association was officially registered in Switzerland in June and could then number 156 members with 12 million subscribers in 86 countries.

For the sake of comparison, in 1992 the internet had 10 million users and 40 million in 1995. This was the year in which the first powerful search engine, AltaVista, was introduced and Microsoft launched its Windows 95 operating system.

In Sweden sales of GSM phones overtook NMT phones in 1994 – 361,000 GSM phones were sold in comparison with 274,000 NMT phones. The last year with any large-scale sales of NMT phones (44,000) was 1997. The NMT 900 network survived until the end of 2000 while the NMT 450 MHz network was closed down on December 31, 2007. In large parts of Sweden – mainly the sparsely populated north – it was the still only one that worked.

NMT continued to gain ground in other parts of the world, peaking in 1996. NMT networks were established in 49 countries altogether, of which 37 used the 450 MHz band and 12 the 900 MHz band.


The development of GSM continued intensively throughout the 1990s. A second standardization phase was implemented for subscribers in 1995 when fax and data transmission services via GSM were launched. Pre-paid cards were introduced the same year and in many places were to contribute to a dramatic growth in the number of subscribers.

The first DCS 1800 (Digital Cellular System in the 1800 MHz band) service was launched in the UK in September 1993, based on a modified version of GSM, mainly intended to cope with the demands of heavily subscribed networks in major urban areas.

In 1994, Nokia’s mobile phones were compatible with every digital mobile network in the world. Nokia was also quickest to adapt its phones for Chinese users using Chinese characters.

A major step forward came with “dual-band” phones, which could function on two different frequency bands. Here too Östen Mäkitalo was involved.

“At Telia, we began to realize that there was going to be a shortage of capacity in the GSM network. There was some talk in the industry of going over to half-rate speech coding in order to raise capacity. But I thought the speech quality in the GSM network was already too low with full data-transfer rates – for instance my wife, who has a high-pitched voice, sounded squeaky during calls,” Mäkitalo says.

He proposed instead a dual-band solution (in the 900 MHz and 1,800 MHz frequencies), and suggested it be presented in a way that would get the maximum possible impact. Mäkitalo announced his dual-band proposal before a packed auditorium at the GSM World Congress in Madrid in 1995. The solution was standardized a year later, and the first telephones to handle two frequency bands were launched in 1997.

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn


Expansion in Kista: Kurt Hellström, president of ERA at the time, turns the first sod for a new building assisted by Per Palmberg, president of REM.


Prime minister Göran Perssons official visit. Also in the picture are representatives from Ericsson.

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

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