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Analog cellular has been with us since the first cellular system was turned on in 1981, 27 years ago. In truth, the only reason it lasted this long is that the FCC kept analog as a requirement.

Goodbye To Analog Cellular

Thursday, December 27, 2007

First and foremost, I wish each and every one of you all the best for the holidays and a very successful new year. 2008 will certainly go down in the annals of wireless as a year of change. Will Sprint roll out WiMAX? Who will win the 700-MHz auctions? Will the D block (shared with public safety) be won by anyone? Will Google actually win a block of spectrum at the auction? If so, what will it do with it? Will Apple unveil a UMTS-capable iPhone? And on and on it goes. There are enough uncertainties for the next year to keep us on our our toes.


However, of one thing there is no doubt: On Monday, February 18, 2008, any network operator that is still supporting analog cellular in the 850-MHz band can pull the plug and start using that spectrum for digital cellular services. This should not be earth-shattering news to anyone since it has been coming for a number of years. On several recent trips to cell sites, I stood and watched the analog equipment and not a single analog channel was in use. The changeover probably won’t affect many handset customers, but it will affect OnStar customers whose cars are equipped with an analog-only cell phone, burglar and fire alarm systems that still use analog cellular to call in an alarm and a few M2M (machine to machine) devices.


So I don’t expect a lot of impact on end users, but I do expect network operators who get to turn off analog to experience noticeable gains. Verizon and other smaller CDMA network operators will gain the use of a full CDMA channel (1.25 MHz). This can and will be used for additional voice capacity in many cell sites, but it can also support a single EV-DO Rev A carrier, so some areas that do not have it now will be getting EV-DO Rev A soon after the analog sunset. From a personal perspective, it means that the Verizon cell site above my house should have EV-DO Rev A available during the first quarter of 2008 so I will have a fallback to my DSL connection, which is good to have just in case.


GSM network operators will gain additional voice or EDGE channels but won’t be able to use this spectrum for UMTS/HSPA unless they add some of their existing spectrum to it since a UMTS carrier uses 5 MHz of bandwidth and most networks will be freeing up about 1.5 MHz of spectrum. AT&T will be shuttering the rest of its TDMA network—you might remember that it went from analog to TDMA instead of GSM, added GSM to its network and now, of course, UMTS/HSPA, so it goes from having to support four different technologies down to two: GSM and UMTS. This will give AT&T more spectrum from the TDMA shutdown as well as from the analog shutdown. (AT&T began decommissioning its TDMA network in the summer of 2007 and plans to have it totally dismantled by early 2008.)


Analog cellular has been with us since the first cellular system was turned on in 1981, 27 years ago. In truth, the only reason it lasted this long is that the FCC kept analog as a requirement for several years to ease the transition to digital cellular. Some of you may remember carrying analog phones and then analog/CDMA or analog/TDMA phones while the networks were in transition. There are no FCC mandates for today’s technologies, so the timing of future network conversions to new technologies will be driven by network operators and suppliers, not by the FCC or the government.


Analog has served us well, from 3-watt mobile phones, to bag phones, to handhelds. As the systems grew in size and coverage, equipment vendors responded with smaller devices that were more mobile than ever before. It won’t be long before entire analog cell sites will show up on eBay, and I’m sure some will buy them just to have a piece of wireless history in their basement or garage.


Network operators who had to keep analog up and running won’t be sad to see it go. It has been painful for them to have to build more sites for increased capacity while they were sitting on enough spectrum to relieve the problem in many areas. T-Mobile and Sprint, as well as a number of the newer, smaller networks, haven’t had to deal with analog since they came after digital standards were released and did not fall under the grandfathered analog rules. They have been able to use all of their spectrum for digital communications right from the beginning.


How fast will analog be replaced with new digital channels? About as fast as technicians can get to each site, insert new channel cards and pull out the old analog equipment. After 27 years, the world of analog cellular service will be going dark in the United States, and today wireless phones are commonplace and are smaller and lighter than ever before. Times have changed, and as the sun sets on 1G (first-generation cellular), 4G is not far off!

COMMENTS: This is an archived post. Commenting is no longer available.

Scott Goldman - 12/28/2007 10:24:05


Thanks for the reminder about this sunset provision - I had almost forgotten about it. As you point out, the main benefit to the carriers of eliminating the analog radios will be expanded capacity for other services on that spectrum - whether they choose voice or data will probably depend on the location of the site (e.g., congested areas will probably get more voice capacity while those sites - hopefully the one above your house! - will get EVDO).

There are benefits to the subscribers, too, of having moved to digital technology. Many users of today's wireless device users weren't even born at the time analog was the predominant technology so they wouldn't know about:

• Static - It's almost unknown in a digital world whereas it was a fact of life with analog. Regardless of your location, whether close to a site or far away, static was a likely occurrence.

• Handoffs - Yes, they still occur, but you and I can remember the actual _sound_ of a call being handed off from one cell to another. With the introduction of digital radios and phones it's nearly, if not completely, impossible to tell when a call is being handed off.

• Battery drain - Sure, today's digital devices lose battery power eventually, but the analog devices had a battery life equivalent to that of a fruit fly. One long phone call and your battery was cooked... nobody could work without a cigarette lighter adaptor in their vehicle to charge their phone.

• Pigtail antennas - At one time it was pretty easy to tell who had a cell phone in their car. The iconic pigtailed antenna mounted on the trunk, roof, or most often the rear window was a dead giveaway. Heck, at one time it was even a status symbol. Ask anyone under the age of 30 if they know what one is and you'll almost certainly get a blank stare.

• Clunky phones - Although with some smart phones we seem to be moving in the other direction, phones have gotten increasingly smaller while retaining - and adding - functionality, battery life and better screens. Analog phones were great business generators for the world's chiropractic community - stick one of them in your pocket and you were bound to have your back or hips out of whack in no time at all.

• Black and white (or black and green) screens - Can you imagine not having a bright color screen on your phone? I can't, but I have a slew of phones in my personal archive that were considered as advanced as Star Trek communicators at the time that have dot matrix, black-on-green screens.

• Pull-up antennas - There may be a few phones remaining with them but the act of pulling out an retractable antenna on a phone is one of those hand movements that you just don't see anymore. Kids today probably think that retractable antennas were around at about the same time as churning butter.

• Amazed stares - Just carrying a portable phone in the time of analog devices was enough to warrant a stare from neighboring tables at a restaurant or on public transit. (Now it's gotten so ubiquitous that the world is in serious need of a lesson in cell phone etiquette.) One plus side of it was that it served as a great conversation starter when I was single!

I'm sure others have memories of the analog days - I wonder what I've forgotten that they might remember?

Anyway, best wishes for a happy holiday to you, too, and thanks for your great insights during this past year.

Scott Goldman

Greg Matheny - 12/28/2007 13:08:44

Hi Andy,

So many analog memories. I remember seeing one of the first briefcase phones and couldn't believe how heavy it was! I was in awe... I used to sell the large brick phone for $750 on the Cellular One network and I will never forget driving down the road in my Honda thinking I was VERY cool talking on that thing. The other thing that stands out is I remember clearly when Cellular One/ATT released TDMA Digital service and they were paying large dollars to dealers for signing new customers. The service was spotty at best and the early adopters went through some pain for sure. If memory serves, most of them stuck with it and service seemed to improve fairly quickly. Analog served us very well to be sure. I have to hand it to all those early digital adopters though, they had to swallow some large pills. Thanks for all of your keen insight in 2007, looking forward to more in 2008.


Andrew Seybold - 12/28/2007 14:15:02

Scott and Greg--thanks for the comments--after I finished reading your comments I could not help but go back in time myself and find a copy of the book I co-authored with Mel Samples called Cellular Mobile Telephone Guide which was published by Howard Sams in 1985. It is a real trip done analog memory lane for sure!
The pictures of the phones shown in the book are fun to look at and we even had pictures of a two-way radio shop installing phones in cars, tearing them apart to run cables for the phone which went in the trunk and needed to be directly connected to the battery, and, of course, the external antenna. The cost of the installation in those days was more than a phone costs today!
Best regards