Happy 20th, GSM!

GSM Twentieth Anniversary Graphic

I’ll let the GSM Association kick off this post, courtesy of their press release:

Twenty years ago an historic agreement was signed in Copenhagen by 15 telecommunications operators from 13 countries that led to the development of the Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), and a mobile communications industry that today serves more than 2.5 billion people across 218 countries and territories.

The ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ agreement of 7th September 1987 laid the foundation for the first Europe-wide digital cellular system, which soon became the world’s first global mobile system as used by more than 700 mobile operators and served by thousands of suppliers today.

If you didn’t know, GSM commands a whopping 85% of the global wireless market, even if the sole GSM carrier in this country is Rogers and their new bitch — and I mean that quite literally — Fido.

I’ve been with Fido and GSM since early 2000, when I found myself in a new condo too far from the nearest clearNET (now Telus) tower to yield a usable signal. On the day of my landline phone installation the Bell Canada technician who showed up had a Fido handset around his belt, and that was all the persuasion I needed — I bought and activated a Fido handset that very same day.

Sure, your average North American-spec CDMA handset now sports the same features as my Fido, but remember that these innovations made their début on GSM. They include:

SMS or Text Messaging

It’s only recently in North America that texting has really taken off — that’s because it’s taken the CDMA carriers this long to figure out interoperability between GSM networks and their own. It’s a much different story in the rest of the world, where mobile users have been thumbing it since at least 1999. Currently the GSM Association reckons that about a billion texts go back and forth around the globe per day.

My favourite text memories include cracking wise about an awful comedy show at the Chicago Improv Fest with a student of mine sitting on the other side of a packed theatre audience, while my girlfriend of the time looked on in disdain.

“You’re not even watching the show,” she whispered angrily to me before someone behind us shushed her and I smugly continued tapping away. I think I was single again shortly thereafter…

Worldwide Roaming

As a savvy jet-setter and points-gatherer I often find myself travelling alone, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. It’s nice to know that loved ones back home are only the press of a button away from, say, here for example. And I know because I’ve made that call — it wasn’t cheap, but I could do it at least!

I’ve also come to appreciate the thoughtful texts that operators often send when you arrive in their country and connect to their network, like this one I got when I landed in Shanghai two summers ago:


Okay, yes they’re shouting, but still…

Unlocked (SIM-free) Handsets

All GSM devices require a SIM card to function. The card is provided by your carrier and stores all necessary data to authenticate and identify you on your local wireless network. Because of GSM’s dominance in the rest of the world, you can place your SIM into any unlocked handset and instantly make it your very own.

So if your carrier decides to yank the WiFi radio out of your favourite phone so as not to cannibalize its ridiculously overpriced data rates, you can respond with a cheery “fuck you” and get the European model instead. Or something else, perhaps on eBay or at Pacific Mall?

With GSM the entire planet is your cell phone shop — with some notable exceptions in Korea and Japan, but they’re working on that.

So happy 20th, GSM… I looking forward to seeing what the next two decades bring!

Categorized as Mobile Tagged

By Andrew

Mobile phones, Linux and copyright reform. Those go together, right?

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