The US and roaming

Mobile telephony expanded rapidly in the US but was to assume very different features from its European counterpart. One important reason was a disinclination to extend roaming functions. The original AMPS specification contained nothing about roaming.

For the rest of the world, this was basically incomprehensible. It was not at all uncommon for a subscriber in the US to need to make calls while visiting a neighboring city. And roaming soon turned out to be a necessity within the largest cities as well, when rapid growth in subscribers meant each city required several exchanges.

Different makeshift solutions emerged. One allowed subscribers a second subscription that would function in another “market” of their choice, a form of dual citizenship. And subscribers could sign agreements that meant that in other places they could contact a switchboard operator who could notify their position to the exchange in their own city.

A “roamers’ guide”, a USD 200 catalog that gave instructions on how to make calls and use mobile services in different localities, turned out to be a successful business idea – “just as important for travelers in the US as their credit cards” (Meurling & Jeans).

ERA employees naturally told their American customers how roaming worked in Europe. For instance they pointed out that Vodafone had specified roaming facilities right from the beginning in its British network, which was after all based on TACS, a cousin of AMPS.


One trend that increased pressure for roaming was the acquisition of smaller operators by the larger ones, which naturally led to the merging of networks. And reference could also be made to the network operated by Cantel in Canada that offered almost nationwide coverage and in which ERA had incorporated roaming functions as in Vodafone’s network.

The US’s disinclination to adapt to standards from abroad was, in practice, counterproductive, says Thomas Beijer: “Americans do not believe in standardization on the whole. Their agencies have not wanted to get mixed up with technological issues and it has been a matter of pride to have their own standards”.

Jöran Hoff describes how on several occasions during the 1980s he sat with the CTIA’s top brass as they attempted to establish a common American standard. “As far as we were concerned, it could be based on any technology at all. But it all collapsed because neither Motorola nor AT&T was prepared to come on board.”

Jan Uddenfeldt describes how he proposed introducing GSM in America in 1987 to the CTIA but it immediately became clear that this would be unacceptable.

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn


In the background Manhattan.

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