"Unique understanding"

Ari T. Manninen, who wrote his doctoral thesis on the emergence of the NMT and GSM standards, describes the Nordic countries as “unique in their understanding of the relationship between technology and society.” Technology is in the service of society. “In mobile telephony, this elementary premise gave the Nordic countries an enormous lead.”

Jean-François Battail, formerly professor of Scandinavian Studies at the Sorbonne, confirms this image. Scandinavians are almost unnaturally over-represented where scientific discoveries and inventions are concerned, he says. “There is a strong emphasis on applied science and benefit: things have to work. While there is a distinct difference between an elite and the masses in France, there is common ground in Scandinavia. Universal ¬inclusion is taken for granted. Everyone should have access to information, knowledge is shared, and people help each other find solutions. The attitude is permissive and encouraging. Nowhere else is there such an emphasis on popular education and evening classes.”

Haug believes that something else contributed to the success of NMT: the politicians left the telephone people to themselves. “If politicians start taking an interest in technological developments and deciding on details, things often go wrong. But mobile telephony was considered marginal, so we were left alone. And that’s why we had our freedom when it came to solving problems.”


What do the creators behind the NMT system themselves feel were the decisive factors for its success?

Östen Mäkitalo: “Because the system was so modern in every respect when it became operational.” He mentions in particular the possibility of receiving and making calls irrespective of where one was (roaming), as “possibly the most important function to enable mobile telephony to spread all over the world.”

Roaming resulted in a very simple architecture in which the radio components, including mobile telephone exchanges, became a distinct “area-code area” that could be linked at a very high level to the fixed network. This more or less automatically fulfilled the requirement that no changes would be needed to the telephone networks.

Thomas Haug says the major challenge, which at the same time contributed to the success, was that very requirement that the telephone network would not have to be changed. “For us, it was a matter of creating a fundamental balance between radio technology and the technology of the fixed network. How could we attain this mix, and what compromises were we going to have to accept?”

This integration was complicated by the fact that the telephone networks in the four Nordic countries were based in many ways on different principles and different manufacturers. “We realized that each country would have to solve its own national problems while the NMT group dealt with those we shared – and then of course with solutions that worked in all the countries.”

The system was based on a number of building blocks that were relatively independent of each other, mainly exchanges, base stations and mobile stations. Specifications were issued for each of these (‘The Red Book,’ ‘The Green Book’ and ‘The Blue Book’) and the components were linked together by the general signal and system specifications (‘The Yellow Book’).

“The Yellow Book, which took several years and a great deal of effort to produce, is not very entertaining for a non-specialist,” says Haug. “But it is absolutely essential reading for anyone supplying an exchange, a mobile station or a base station if they are to understand how the system functions and what to produce. It describes the core of the entire system, but because it is very technical and not spectacular in any way, it has not attracted the attention it deserves.”

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn


L.M. Ericsson CEO Björn Svedberg (left) and Televerket director-general Tony Hagström sign a contract for NMT.

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

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