Who launched the first GSM network? It depends on how the question is defined.

Mannesmann was Ericsson’s most important GSM customer. One critical episode came when the members of the Mannesmann board got to test the system in connection with a meeting on June 11, 1991. Telecom was a new sort of business for Mannesmann, originally an industrial group focused on iron and steel, and support within the company was far from universal. 

The company had mounted a telephone borrowed from Motorola in one of its Mercedes-Benz cars, and people got to call the head office in Düsseldorf. After the system proved its worth, the Mannesmann management became more enthusiastic. 

On July 1, Mannesmann sent a letter to the German Ministry of Communications stating that it was ready for GSM traffic in accordance with its license. But, recalls Gunnar Sjökvist, ERA’s head of testing for the project, “Nobody got very excited about the delivery on July 1, 1991, because there were no mobile phones and no subscribers who could use the network.”


In Finland, on the other hand, Radiolinja beat hard on the PR drum. In the afternoon of July 1, the GSM network was launched commercially when former prime minister Harri Holkeri from the National Coalition Party made a call using a Nokia mobile phone from Helsinki to Tampere’s acting chief executive Kaarina Suonio, a Social Democrat.

This GSM network provided only partial coverage of three Finnish cities: Helsinki, Turku and Tampere. Attempts to call between Helsinki and Turku on launch day were unsuccessful. But Radiolinja had managed to scrape together a few dozen subscribers, says Nordman.

ERA’s customer in Finland, the Finnish telecom authority, gave a public demonstration of GSM, including a sauna for the media, in Helsinki that same day, but waited with its launch. 

Televerket in Sweden also held off from launching GSM, but marked the day, together with ERA, by announcing the system in Stockholm and holding a reception for about 150 people. 

Jan Wäreby, then ERA’s European head of sales, recalls: “Late in the afternoon of July 1, Yngve Zetterström, Televerket’s GSM project manager, and I called Tony Hagström with an Orbitel-brand mobile phone. It was a magical day for us. The fact that Televerket held off didn’t mean anything. We both wanted to show the world that we were ready to launch the GSM service on time. And there were many people on the project team who had worked hard. It was a great reward.”

On July 1, ERA also ran a GSM demonstration for the Danish telecom authority in Copenhagen.

Mats Köhlmark, head of ERA’s GSM project in 1991, summarizes the day thus: “On July 1, 1991, we could call using GSM over Ericsson systems in Germany, Helsinki, Copenhagen and Stockholm. The Scandinavian systems were however very small: in Helsinki three base stations, Copenhagen two and Stockholm ten, in an area stretching from Haninge [in the south] to Arlanda [in the north].”

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn


Yngve Zetterström, Televerket’s project manager for GSM, makes a call using an Orbitel phone to CEO Tony Hagström late in the afternoon of July 1, 1991. To the left is Jan Wäreby, ERA’s sales manager for Europe. Televerket made good money from NMT and held off with GSM.


Mark Köhlmark, project manager for GSM, and Jan Zaar, manager for system verification in the "system emergency crowd,"the GSM teams central command at ERA in Kista.

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

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