History--Western Union's cellular service, 1984 [telecom]

In 1984, the Western Union Telegraph Company got into the cellular mobile phone business. Below is a link to an ad they ran in "New York" magazine.

Unfortunately, at that time W/U was losing serious money in various ventures. They were forced to sell off their bandwidth. Had they been able to keep it a few more years, it would've been very valuable.

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That ad doesn't advertise cellular *service*, but physical cellular

*phones* made by WUTC's E.F. Johnson subsidiary. WUTC didn't have any cellular "bandwidth" in New York. There were two cellular licensees in New York back then; one of the two initial licenses was awarded to the NYNEX cellular affiliate and the other was awarded to Cellular Telephone Corporation, a joint venture of LIN Broadcasting, Metromedia, and a coalition of New York paging companies (principally Metromedia). Western Union Telegraph Co. was not involved. (I was the chief of the FCC's Mobile Services Division, responsible for cellular rules and licensing, at the time.)
Reply to
Michael D. Sullivan

In 1985 I installed this very same Western Union branded cellular telephone systems in a friend's Cadillac. I don't know where he got the phone or how much he paid for it, but it was like the Rolls-Royce of cellular phones. At the time cellular phones cost thousands of dollars (no portables yet) and this was the best of the best. I mounted the large, heavy transceiver in the trunk and ran the fat wiring harness under the carpeting to the transmission hump under the dash, where I mounted the control head.

The Western Union cellular (AMPS) transceiver was the only one I've ever seen to this day that used a diversity receiver--two receivers and two antennas arranged in a 'voting' configuration to ensure the

800 MHz band signal would be received as reliably as possible. The wavelength of the radio signals in that 800 MHz band made 'picket fencing" (rapid signal fade-in / fade out) a problem as the car phone was in motion and experienced signal peaks and troughs from to wave interference, which could cause the transceiver to lose connection with the cellular repeater / tower. So I took advantage of the feature and mounted dual 5/8 wave coaxial antennas on either side of the trunk. It looked and worked great.

The Western Union control head was impressive. The keypad and electroluminescent blue display looked similar to an AT&T Merlin desk set, but with the control panel and keypad angled to the left towards the driver. The handset looked like a normal modular handset with squired-off earpiece and microphone. All very ergonomic. It had a key switch to prevent unauthorized phone calls (by parking valets) and a relay that could blow your car horn when you were outside the vehicle when your phone rang!

This phone had full-duplex audio and superb audio fidelity. Remember, the AMPS standard mandated a 30 KHz FM chanel for each side of the conversation. Nowadays we're stuck with a comparatively awful-sounding 4 kbps half-duplex codec and a tinny earpiece speaker. Progress? Only for telco industry profits. Cell phones used to sound as good as landlines.

Western Union not only invested in cellular licenses in various markets, but also manufactured end-user equipment. This phone model was made by WU's subsidiary E.F. Johnson, which had a long history of making quality two-way radio gear. (I still have my 1959 E.F. Johnson Challenger amateur shortwave transmitter.)

The New York Magazine advertisement posted by HAncock4 touted the phone's privacy. That's a laugh. While it was more private than pre-cellular IMTS (which was like a giant party line) analog (AMPS) cellular calls were anything but private. Anyone could easily monitor nearby random cellular conversations with an ordinary analog TV by tuning through the upper UHF TV channels which had been recently refarmed by the FCC for cellular around 1980.

To address potential cellular users' privacy concerns, the cellular telephone industry lobby bought a new federal law in 1986 called the ECPA (Electronic Communications Privacy Act) which for the first time criminalized listening to certain radio frequencies. And it denied FCC type-acceptance for consumer-grade receivers/scanners that could receive those frequencies. But modifying radio scanners wasn't difficult and turned cellular monitoring into a popular hobby -- until the FCC allowed cellular telcos to switch to encrypted digital modulation in 2007.


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It appears that WU did have some spectrum in a few other places.

According to "The Cellphone: The History and Technology of the Gadget That Changed the World"*, pg 70, Western Union won several markets with the potential of millions of potential users, but when the company hit hard times, the decision came to sell everything. Western Union sold its cellular phone spectrum in 1985, giving away what would later turn out to be billions in revenue.

  • Available on google books at:
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I found some additional information about WU cell phones, taken from their employee newsletter* of July 1984:

. In the early cellular days, the FCC planned to allocate two companies--the traditional "wireline" (Bell or Independent) and a new non-wireline company. WU sought to be the non-wireline provider. WU had business partners.

. WU said they had operating systems in Buffalo, Indianapolis, and Milwaukee. They were building systems in Cleveland, Detroit, and Toledo.

. The cell phone sets were targeted toward high end businesspeople and government officials (e.g. a big city mayor and his commissioners). They mentioned installing them in limousines. Presumably, those people could afford the very high cost of the telephone, installation, and monthly service charges.

. E.F. Johnson offered two models--dial in base and dial in handset. A briefcase model was under development.

. E.F. Johnson is still in business making radios:

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At that time, WU also offered alternative long distance service, advertised to be cheaper than AT&T. However, it appeared to be targeted toward business users: There was a $5 service charge as well as a $10 minimum usage.

In 1984, the New York Times ran a number of articles on Western Union's financial health. The company was losing serious money. Revenue from traditional lines of business was quickly declining, and new ventures weren't profitable. WU was dependent on AT&T for many transmission circuits, and used to get discounted rates for them. After Divestiture, the discounts were lost, and WU had to rush to build their own lines, which was costly and not always practical.

  • Unfortunately, the old Western Union employee newsletters are not available online (AFAIK). I hope to find an archive for them, possibly on TCI, within a year. While they are a public relations outlet and not exactly an historical record, they do provide a valuable look at the company over the years.
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In article you write:

I had an early-ish NYNEX AMPS cell phone in my car in the late 1980s. The practical reason to put them in the car was that they were too big to carry. My phone was similar to the one described a few messages ago, a handset mounted between the front seats and a large electronics box under the driver's seat. There was a "portable" version that put the box in a briefcase. The early handhelds were more gimmicks than useful phones, heavy, expensive, and talk time of 1/2 hr if you were lucky between overnight recharges.

R's, John

Reply to
John Levine

Ask archive.org if they have space for them. Won't need a lot.


Reply to
Scott Dorsey

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