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ESPOO, Finland – Today marks the 20th anniversary of the first phone call made over GSM – the Global System for Mobile communications. The call – between Finland’s former prime minister, Harri Holkeri, and the mayor of Tampere, Kaarina Suonio  – took place over a network jointly developed by Telenokia and Siemens Networks, the two companies that joined to form today’s Nokia Siemens Networks. It was made using a Nokia Mobira car phone. But what did the two dignatories say to each other?

Nokia’s Timo Ali-Vehmas, VP for Compatibility and Industry Collaboration, was there in 1991 and recalls it well:

A sunny day in the Esplanade Park in  downtown Helsinki, pretty much like we have today. There were many people there, who were looking around and wondering what is going on. Several trucks and buses and few black limos were parked there on the lawn and on the walkways. There were also many busy young men and women running back and forth with some worried faces. You could see they were thinking: we are about to do something that nobody had done before. But does it work ?

Of course it did work. Timo says the relief was immense, and not just in that Helsinki park. “The faces of the people looked different now in Helsinki, in Tampere where the action took place but also in Salo, Oulu and Espoo where the work behind the scenes was mainly done”.

And the main topic of the phone conversation was how much better this new standard for digital communications was than the old analogue phones they’d used before. GSM offered much better call quality and security against snooping. It also saw the advent of the SIM card, the main advantage of which remains the ease with which it became possible to switch phones.

Of course, the success of GSM was beyond anyone’s expectations. It reached more than 500 million subscribers in the first decade to 2001. Today GSM networks have more than 4.2 4.4 billion subscriptions. And the figure is still growing fast, with 1 million new GSM subscriptions every day.  That’s a rate of nearly 12 a second.

There’s no sign of that changing very soon, either. The latest and greatest technologies for faster mobile communications, like EDGE, 3G and LTE are all evolutionary, based on the standards laid down by GSM. So here’s to the next twenty years of digital-based chatter!

Image credit: Amy.