It was an eventful year for technological innovations in 1981. The US launched its first space shuttle in April, brought it back safely, and then launched it again that autumn. In August, IBM launched its first personal computer, and MTV began transmissions in the US. In Stockholm, Televerket prepared for the launch of what would be called the world’s first cellular automatic telephone system.
The Swedish premiere for NMT was scheduled for October 1, 1981. The minister of communications, Claes Elmstedt, was invited to make the first official call from Televerket in Stockholm in the presence of the directors-general of the Nordic telecommunication agencies. The event took place at Televerket’s exchange at Hammarby, the first to have an MTX.
But Televerket was not the first to use NMT. A month earlier, on September 1, 1981, the first NMT network had started operating in Saudi Arabia.
Behind this lay a contract that L.M. Ericsson in collaboration with Philips had won in Saudi Arabia in 1977. The largest contract yet signed in the telecommunications world, the deal involved the rapid construction of a totally new fixed network. One additional order that flowed from that was for a mobile telephone network in the three largest cities.
Philips was at that stage already developing its own mobile telephone system and had set its heart on getting the order. Unluckily for Philips, its system was designed for the 160 MHz band, which was already occupied in Saudi Arabia. But the 450 MHz band was free. Luckily for L.M. Ericsson, it had recently decided to develop the MTX mobile exchange and Philips reluctantly accepted that L.M. Ericsson would be the supplier.
This was an unexpected opportunity for SRA. But there were many problems to solve. The most important was a lack of competence in mobile telephony. Neither were there any real products to show, not even the phones included in the deal. Flemming Ørneholm, newly appointed as marketing manager for SRA’s radio division and who put the package together, highlights the role of Håkan Lindquist. Based in Stockholm, Lindquist assembled high-quality wooden models, which could now be put on show. “We sold the mobile system using wooden models.”
After hearing about the Nordic plans, the client insisted that the NMT system be launched commercially first in Saudi Arabia. SRA worked at top speed to make this happen. There were a few unexpected problems to be solved. When subscribers brought in their cars, mainly limousines, for the telephones to be installed, the work had to stop until drills could be acquired that could cope with armor plating. And the keys on the handsets had to be replaced: the plastic bubbles protecting them melted in the heat of the desert sun (“even though we had tested them at 100C back in Sweden,” SRA's project leader Jöran Hoff recalls).
Another unexpected development was the rapid shift in the exchange rate of the US dollar. Hoff recounted in an interview in 2008: “We were lucky with the currency. I believe that it rose from five Swedish crowns to ten in a very short time, and the Saudi real was pegged to the dollar. We got twice as much in dollars as we had counted on.”
Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn