2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of the launch of the first digital mobile telephone network in Poland. Some of us took notice of the fact, others didn’t. Pity that because, besides the ubiquity of computers in our lives, it is the telephone, or more precisely the smartphone, that has shaped today’s reality. And since the path from the first GSM networks to the age of the smartphone is both relatively short and incredibly interesting, I think it is worthwhile to take a trip down memory lane. The first mobile telephone network in Poland went into operation in 1996. The second operator arrived at these shores less than two weeks later, while Poles held their breath and watched the players battling it out on the market. It was in fact the first time they had had the opportunity to see in action companies trying to outdo one another in luring customers. A third operator entered the fray in mid 1997, and the pace of events picked up still.
Why was the arrival of digital mobile telephone networks such a momentous event? To understand its significance, we have to look further back, before 1996. Having a stationary phone was not a rule in those days in Poland by any means. Analogue cellular phones operating in the NMT 450 system were, owing to their fabulously high price, a luxury reserved only for the richest few. Incidentally, analogue technology, due to its very nature, made it nay impossible for a large number of subscribes to join in.
It is in this climate that GSM operators sprang up, offering small telephones, relatively inexpensive services and a fairly good coverage across the most populous areas. This may not sound like a sea change, but it really was a revolution. Moreover, the revolution spread around the globe. Even in the developed West, where the telecommunications infrastructure was not in such a dire state as in Poland, digital mobile phones were a novelty.
The next few years saw a steady decline in the price of services, which is why in 2000 the so called market saturation (number of telephone sets relative to the number of people in a country) was nearly twenty per cent in Poland. In the meantime, the networks continued to extend their signal coverage, spreading to less populous areas. It would be another seven years before market saturation reached one hundred per cent, that is more or less forty million sim cards in use.
Although for a long time GSM phones were only phones, digital telephony applications promised an enormous development potential. Analogue transmission has serious limitations. Indeed, there is a gulf between it and digital signal transmission. I shall spare you the technical details as this would take up too much space and I would have to go into things like Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) or time slots. In fact, the whole vast world, the new dimension of our reality which mobile networks have created, would not be possible without digital transmission. It’s hard to believe that just two decades ago so many things we take for granted today simply didn’t exist.
The spread of smartphones brought another revolution. The phone became not only a multi-functional but actually a universal device which consigned to history its competitors, and not only on the telecommunications market. The smartphone has dealt a death blow to MP3 players, the simplest cameras or GPS navigation, to name but a few most obvious examples. It is used for reading books, watching and recording movies, and most of all for surfing online: from dropping into social networks to internet shopping. Of late it has gained another dimension, adapting itself to augmented and virtual reality. All this while still being good for making regular telephone calls.
Market saturation by mobile phones in Poland is about one hundred and fifty per cent today, while the number of sim cards in use is edging closer to sixty million. No one should be surprised that nearly eighty per cent of all mobile telephones sold in our country are smartphones. In Western Europe, the figure is closer to nine out of ten. Although such saturation leaves little room for spectacular growth, set against the entire electronics sector the market for smartphones does not look half bad.
Globally, the market is growing at a steady rate, while in Poland growth is forecast to be at lease a few percentage points.
What else can we expect from the smartphone? Of course, it is hard to say, but we can be absolutely sure that there are more surprises in store. Smartphones are set to undergo a long and very dynamic evolution. What new features, new possibilities, new applications can be added to the devices we all love so much? I have a few ideas, but I’m sure that manufacturers will find a lot more.
Some charts tracing the history of mobile phones in Poland:
Some latest news about the smartphones market: