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GSM History

During the early 1980s, analog cellular telephone systems were experiencing rapid growth in Europe, particularly in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom, but also in France and Germany. Each country developed its own system, which was incompatible with everyone else's in equipment and operation. This was an undesirable situation, because not only was the mobile equipment limited to operation within national boundaries, which in a unified Europe were increasingly unimportant, but there was also a very limited market for each type of equipment, so economies of scale and the subsequent savings could not be realized.

The Europeans realized this early on, and in 1982 the Conference of European Posts and Telegraphs (CEPT) formed a study group called the Groupe Spécial Mobile (GSM) to study and develop a pan-European public land mobile system. The proposed system had to meet certain criteria:

  • Good subjective speech quality

  • Low terminal and service cost

  • Support for international roaming

  • Ability to support handheld terminals

  • Support for range of new services and facilities

  • Spectral efficiency

  • ISDN compatibility

In 1989, GSM responsibility was transferred to the European Telecommunication Standards Institute (ETSI), and phase I of the GSM specifications were published in 1990. Commercial service was started in mid-1991, and by 1993 there were 36 GSM networks in 22 countries. Although standardized in Europe, GSM is not only a European standard. Over 200 GSM networks (including DCS1800 and PCS1900) are operational in 110 countries around the world. In the beginning of 1994, there were 1.3 million subscribers worldwide , which had grown to more than 55 million by October 1997. With North America making a delayed entry into the GSM field with a derivative of GSM called PCS1900, GSM systems exist on every continent, and the acronym GSM now aptly stands for Global System for Mobile communications.

The developers of GSM chose an unproven (at the time) digital system, as opposed to the then-standard analog cellular systems like AMPS in the United States and TACS in the United Kingdom. They had faith that advancements in compression algorithms and digital signal processors would allow the fulfillment of the original criteria and the continual improvement of the system in terms of quality and cost. The over 8000 pages of GSM recommendations try to allow flexibility and competitive innovation among suppliers, but provide enough standardization to guarantee proper interworking between the components of the system. This is done by providing functional and interface descriptions for each of the functional entities defined in the system.



1982 - The Beginning

  • Nordic Telecom and Netherlands PTT propose to CEPT (Conference of European Post and Telecommunications) the development of a new digital cellular standard that would cope with the ever a burgeoning demands on European mobile networks. 

  • The European Commission (EC) issues a directive which requires member states to reserve frequencies in the 900 MHz band for GSM to allow for roaming.


  • Main GSM radio transmission techniques are chosen


  • September - 13 operators and administrators from 12 areas in the CEPT GSM advisory group sign the charter GSM (Groupe Spéciale Mobile) MoU "Club" agreement, with a launch date of 1 July 1991 .

  • The original French name was later changed to Global System for Mobile Communications , but the original GSM acronym stuck.

  • GSM spec drafted.


  • The European Telecommunications Standards Institute ( ETSI ) defined GSM as the internationally accepted digital cellular telephony standard

  • GSM becomes an ETSI technical committee


  • Phase 1 GSM 900 specifications are frozen

  • DCS adaptation starts

  • Validation systems implemented

  • First GSM World congress in Rome with 650 Participants


  • First GSM spec demonstrated

  • DCS specifications are frozen

  • GSM World Congress Nice has 690 Participants


  • January - First GSM network operator is Oy Radiolinja Ab in Finland

  • December 1992 - 13 networks on air in 7 areas

  • GSM World Congress Berlin - 630 Participants


  • GSM demonstrated for the first time in Africa at Telkom '93 in Cape Town

  • Roaming agreements between several operators established

  • December 1993 - 32 networks on air in 18 areas

  • GSM World Congress Lisbon with 760 Participants

  • Telkom '93 held in Cape Town. First GSM systems shown.


  • First GSM networks in Africa launched in South Africa

  • Phase 2 data/fax bearer services launched

  • Vodacom becomes first GSM network in the world to implement data/fax

  • GSM World Congress Athens with 780 Participants

  • December 1994 - 69 networks on air in 43 areas


  • GSM MoU is formally registered as an Association registered in Switzerland - 156 members from 86 areas.

  • GSM World Congress Madrid with 1400 Participants

  • December 1995 117 networks on air in 69 areas

  • Fax, data and SMS roaming started

  • GSM phase 2 standardization is completed, including adaptation for PCS 1900 (PCS)

  • First PCS 1900 network live 'on air' in the USA

  • Telecom '95 Geneva - Nokia shows 33.6 kbps multimedia data via GSM

  • Namibia goes on-line

  • Ericsson 337 wins GSM phone of the year

  • US FCC auctions off PCS licenses


  • GSM MoU is formally registered as an Association registered in Switzerland

  • December 1996 120 networks on air in 84 areas

  • GSM World Congress in Cannes

  • GSM MoU Plenary held in Atlanta GA, USA

  • 8K SIM launched

  • Pre-Paid GSM SIM Cards launched

  • Bundled billing introduced in South Africa

  • Libya goes on-line

  • Option International launches world's first GSM/Fixed-line modem


  • Zimbabwe goes live

  • GSM World Congress Cannes 21/2/97

  • Mozambique goes live

  • Iridium birds launched

  • First dual-band GSM 900-1900 phone launched by Bosch


  • Botswana GSM goes live

  • GSM World Congress Cannes (2/98)

  • Vodacom Introduces Free VoiceMail

  • MTN Gets Uganda Tender

  • GSM SIM Cracked in USA

  • Over 2m GSM 1900 users

  • MTN Gets Rwanda Tender

  • MTN follows with free voicemail

  • Rwanda GSM Live

  • First HSCSD trials in Singapore

  • Vodacom launches Yebo!Net 10/98

  • Iridium Live 11/98

  • First GSM Africa Conference (11/98)

  • 125m GSM 900/1800/1900 users worldwide (12/98)

  • Option International launches FirstFone

  • MTN launches CarryOver minutes


  • GSM Conference in Cannes 2/99

  • 165m GSM 900/1800/1900 users worldwide

  • GPRS trials begin and USA and Scandanavia 1/99

  • WAP trials in France and Italy 1/99

  • CellExpo Africa 5/99

  • Eight Bidders for Third SA Cell License

  • GSM MoU Joins 3GPP

  • MTN SA Head of GSM MoU

  • First GPRS networks go live

  • Bluetooth specification v1.0 released


  • GSM Conference in Cannes 3/2000

  • By 12/2000 480m GSM 900/1800/1900 users worldwide

  • First GPRS networks roll out

  • Mobey Forum Launched

  • MeT Forum Launched

  • Location Interoperability Forum Launched

  • First GPRS terminals seen

  • Nokia releases SmartMessaging spec

  • SyncML spec released


  • GSM Conference in Cannes 2/2001

  • By 5/2001 500m GSM 900/1800/1900 users worldwide

  • 16 billion SMS message sent in April 2001

  • 500 million people are GSM users (4/01)