History and Timeline of GSM

 (1980-82)   The Beginning
Groupe Speciale Mobile
(1984-85)    Digital
(1986-87)    Politics
(1986-87)    The 'Memorandum of Understanding'
Vision becomes a reality
Setting the standard
(1990-91)    All systems clear
Barriers to overcome
One million customers milestone
Going global
Smart and secure

The Beginning

In the early 1980s, as business was becoming increasingly international, the communications industry focused exclusively on local cellular solutions, with very few compatible systems.  Nevertheless, it was clear there would be an escalating demand for a technology that facilitated flexible and reliable mobile communications. But this in itself was a potentially lethal time bomb that threatened the durability of first-generation cellular networks. The problem was lack of capacity.  By the early 1990s, it was clear that analog technology would not be able to keep up with demand.

Groupe Speciale Mobile

Localized solutions to the development of mobile communications would not be able to satisfy long-term economic goals. R&D costs facing operators and manufacturers required the economies of scale inherent in global market penetration.  

To address this need, the CEPT was formed in 1982 by the Conference Des Administrations Europeans Des Posts et Telecommunications. In turn, the CEPT established the Groupe Speciale Mobile (GSM) to develop the specification for a pan-European mobile communications network capable of supporting the many millions of subscribers likely to turn to mobile communications in the years ahead.



In 1985, West Germany, France and Italy signed an agreement for the development of GSM. The United Kingdom joined in the following year, and the group decided that digital technology would become the future of global wireless communication.   

Digital technology offered an attractive combination of performance and spectral efficiency.  In addition, such a system would allow the development of advanced features like speech security and data communications.   Digital also was compatible with Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) technology, which was being developed by land-based telecommunications systems throughout the world, and which would be necessary for GSM to be successful.

Pressure from countries like France and West Germany encouraged the Commission of the European Communities to outline the situation to the Heads of Member States at a meeting in December 1986. The result was a recommendation and a Directive, which between them laid the political foundations for the development of GSM. It called for a launch of a limited set of services by 1991. This would be followed by complete rollout in major European cities by 1993 and the linking of these areas in 1995.  The Directive ensured that every Member State would reserve the 900MHz frequency blocks required for the rollout program.

Although these were somewhat smaller than the amount advocated by the CEPT, the industry had finally achieved the political support it needed to advance its objectives.

However, the timetable for development turned out to be just a tad optimistic.

The ĎMemorandum of Understandingí

In 1986, the GSM Permanent Nucleus (headquartered in Paris) was formed to assume overall responsibility for coordinating the development of GSM.

Stephen Temple of the UKís Department of Trade and Industry was charged with the task of drafting the first Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). He was convinced that if the project were to have a future at least three countries would have to commit to deploying GSM technology by 1 July 1991. Such was the potency of the GSM vision that on 7 September 1987 network operators from thirteen countries signed a MoU in Copenhagen. There were 15 signatories in total: France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland and, from the UK, two independent operators - Cellnet and Racal-Vodafone - as well as the DTI.


Vision becomes a reality

In 1986, the GSM Permanent Nucleus held a series of validation trials in Paris. They tested eight or nine different designs in the quest for an appropriate radio path, because at the heart of developing a new digital standard was the resolution of questions relating to reliability and error correction. Fortunately, the technology that could provide such a resolution was just around the corner. 

One of the most important conclusions from the early tests of the new GSM technology was that the new standard should employ Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) technology.  This ensured that the support of major players like Nokia, Ericsson and Siemens, and the flexibility in having access to a broad range of suppliers and the potential to get product faster into the marketplace. After a series of tests, the GSM digital standard was proven to work in 1988.


Setting the standard

In 1989, the UK Department of Trade and Industry published a discussion document called "Phones on the Move." This advocated the introduction of mass-market mobile communications using new technology and operating in the 1800MHz-frequency band. The UK government licensed two operators to run what became known as Personal Communications Networks (PCN). Operating at the higher frequency gave the PCN operators virtually unlimited capacity, whereas 900MHz was limited.

The GSM community was beginning to feel increasingly under threat.

All systems clear

In 1989, the responsibility for specification development passed from the GSM Permanent Nucleus to the newly created European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI).

ETSI accorded equal status to administrators, operators and manufacturers, which in it had a considerable impact on the speed of development. It was the combination of a co-operative environment and improved resources that enabled the majority of Phase 1 of the GSM 900 specifications to be published in 1990.

In addition, the UKís PCN turned out to be more of an opportunity than a threat. The new operators decided to utilize the GSM specification - slightly modified because of the higher frequency - and the development of what became known as DCS 1800 was carried out by ETSI in parallel with GSM standardization. In fact, in 1997 DCS 1800 was renamed GSM 1800 to reflect the affinity between the two technologies.

In 1991, a pilot GSM network was successfully demonstrated at the ITUís Telecom exhibition in Geneva with around 11,000 calls made and no major problems encountered.

Barriers to overcome

Rolling out a multi-national global communications standard faced several barriers.  The cornerstone of GSM is international roaming.  For this to be possible all networks and handsets have to be identical. With many manufacturers creating many different products in many different countries, each type of terminal was put through a rigorous approval regime.  However, at the time, no approval process was available, and it took nearly a year before the handheld terminals were tested and fit for market entry.

One million customers milestone

The real launch of GSM took place in the latter part of 1992. Among the early runners were Denmark (two operators), Finland (two operators), France, Germany (two operators), Italy, Portugal (two operators) and Sweden (three operators). Then on 17 June 1992 the first roaming agreement was signed between Telecom Finland and Vodafone in the UK. The vision of a pan-European network was fast becoming a reality.

By the end of 1993, GSM had broken through the 1 million-subscriber barrier with the next million already on the horizon. The MoU could now boast 70 members from 48 countries and 25 roaming agreements had been signed, sealed and delivered. And, perhaps most significant of all, the Australian company Telstra had added its name to the growing MoU membership.

It seemed that GSM was no longer going to remain an exclusively European phenomenon.


In September 1993, Mercury One-2-One launched the first DCS 1800 network in the UK. In the years ahead, licensing administrations throughout the world would employ this system - which utilized modified GSM specifications - as a means of introducing further competition into the mobile market. The impact of such intensive competition was to shift mobile communications away from the business community and into the mass market.

Then in 1994, the US Federal Communications Commission auctioned large blocks of spectrum in the 1900MHz band. The aim was to introduce digital wireless networks to the country in the form of a new kind of mass market Personal Communications Service. In the competitive spirit of the times, the FCC deliberately ensured that the PCS licenses were neutral as regards the type of technology to be employed.


Going global

After two years, GSM had expanded beyond Europe and Australia, establishing a presence in India, Africa, Asia and the Arab world.  By June 1995, the MoU was formally registered as an Association in Switzerland, with 156 members serving 12 million customers in 86 countries.

The same year saw the completion of the GSM Phase 2 standardization and a demonstration of fax, video and data communication via GSM. It also produced an adaptation of PCS 1900 to meet the opportunities created by the recent FCC auction in the USA.

In the United States, the new PCS operators recognized the advantages of an open standard creating a global, multi-vendor market for product. This had the advantage of making network deployment extremely cost-effective. Once the FCC had opened the door, the major GSM vendors rapidly developed a GSM variation customized for the 1900MHz-frequency band.

In November 1995, American Personal Communications launched the first commercial GSM service in the US. By May 1997, there were 15 PCS 1900 - now GSM 1900 - networks and over 400,000 users.


Smart and secure

One of the most attractive features of GSM is that it is a very secure network. All communications, both speech and data, are encrypted to prevent eavesdropping. GSM subscribers are identified by their Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card. This holds their identity number and authentication key and algorithm. While the choice of algorithm is the responsibility of individual GSM operators, they all work closely together through the MoU to ensure security of authentication.

This smartcard technology means itís no longer necessary for users to own a terminal - travelers can simply rent GSM phones at the airport and insert their SIM card.  Since itís the card rather than the terminal that enables network access, feature access and billing, the user is immediately on-line.

Source: GSM MoU Association