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Ronald Reagan and The Cell Phone

If Al Gore invented the Internet, did Ronald Reagan invent the cell phone? While anyone who's up on their cellular history knows Martin Cooper is credited with the invention of the cell phone, many don't know the role President Reagan played in fostering the development of the cell phone as we know it today.

Of course, no one actually credits Reagan with the invention of the cell phone – just as Gore never actually claimed credit for the invention of the Internet. Gore's point, often misquoted, was that he supported initiatives that helped pave the path for the Internet's development. Among Gore's initiatives was the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, which was signed by then-President George H. W. Bush and was directly responsible for the creation of the Mosaic web browser (considered the “springboard” for the World Wide Web) and government-sponsored infrastructure to support the “Information Superhighway.” Similarly, Reagan leveraged his political power to help pave the path to the modern cell phone – although that path was decidedly different than the one traversed by Gore.


FCC, AT&T, Motorola, Reagan, and the spectrum

AT&T/Bell Labs had been at the forefront of communications technology for decades when it first developed cellular capabilities in 1947. In the early 1970s the company planned to enable cellular communications via the car phone, but by the time the technology was suitable for commercial use a competing technology had emerged: the first mobile phone, developed by Motorola's Martin Cooper, who made the first public mobile phone call in 1973. However, AT&T maintained a critical competitive edge: FCC-approved access to the radio spectrum.

Not only did AT&T have access to the communications technology needed to enable truly mobile phones, it had the capability to bring car phones to the market. Cooper's idea took another decade to become commercially viable. Still, AT&T had a couple of major obstacles to overcome before it could assert itself as the leader in cellular communications.

In 1972, AT&T lobbied the FCC for exclusive rights to the cellular spectrum, and all signs pointed toward the FCC approving the petition. This would have made AT&T the only company legally able to harness the power of cellular communications, and would have likely changed the cell phone's development path given AT&T's focus on car phones. However, Cooper's 1973 demonstration and subsequent government lobbying gave the FCC pause, and AT&T's request was denied.

While AT&T/Bell Labs and Motorola spent the next decade making their technologies commercially viable, the FCC dragged its feet to authorize cellular service in the United States. The companies had collectively invested hundreds of millions of dollars into developing technology it couldn't market and sell.

In 1980, Motorola CEO Robert Galvin showed then-Vice President Bush his company's current cell phone. Bush then showed the phone to President Reagan, who asked Galvin what was preventing the technology from becoming mainstream. Galvin related his frustration with the FCC's slow authorization process to the president. Within two years, the FCC finally authorized cellular service in the United States, which prompted Motorola and AT&T to continue to invest in bringing cell phones to the masses.

Though it can't be known exactly how much influence Reagan exerted in convincing the FCC to approve cellular service, it stands to reason his administration played a formidable role in hastening the process. Moreover, Reagan's role in the development of the modern cell phone is even more evident when you consider AT&T's second major obstacle: an antitrust suit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice.

In 1974 the Justice Department filed a suit calling for the breakup of AT&T, considered a natural monopoly that largely controlled nationwide communications. Proposed settlements by AT&T were rejected by the Reagan administration, which cited the Sherman Act as its basis for the antitrust suit. The suit labored on until 1982, when AT&T agreed to separate into eight different entities: AT&T (“Ma Bell”) would still handle long distance (albeit alongside competitors) and gain entry into the computer market, but seven new regional companies (“Baby Bells”) would be responsible for local services and would no longer be required to purchase AT&T equipment – a formerly lucrative arrangement for AT&T.

That latter stipulation resulted in a major loss for AT&T, which subsequently was not able to fund its extensive research programs. AT&T was ultimately absorbed by one of its “Baby Bells,” Southwestern Bell Communications, which ultimately changed its name to AT&T, Inc. The loss of profits associated with guaranteed equipment sales also pushed the “new” AT&T to seek new communications-based profit streams, and again invest in cellular technology.

Reagan's lasting impact on cell phones

If not for Reagan's intervention in both FCC cellular approval and the AT&T antitrust case, the modern cell phone might still be a pipe dream. What if the FCC took 15, 20, or even 25 years to authorize cellular service in the U.S.? Would the projects have been abandoned, and the technology lost? What if AT&T's initial (and favorable) settlement offer had been accepted? What if AT&T been able to secure exclusive rights to the spectrum? What if AT&T had remained a single company?

How much has cell phone technology been held back by bureaucracy, and how much has government influence hastened its development?

Though some of Reagan's policies, such as denying AT&T's initial settlements, likely delayed cell phone development, others, such as creating communications competition, no doubt hastened it. Ultimately, without Reagan in the 1980s there would be no Verizon versus AT&T, no Motorola versus Samsung versus Apple today.

Ronald Reagan didn't invent the cell phone, but his policies made it possible for competitors to challenge the the status quo and develop market-viable cell phones for the masses. Thus, he is as responsible for your cell phone as your wireless carrier, manufacturer, and even Martin Cooper; which makes him a political pioneer in global communications. And that's something even Al Gore can be proud of.




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