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Wireless Industry Innovation: The Digital Revolution

Wireless is so much a part of our lives today, it’s hard to realize how new it is and how far we’ve come in such little time. Later this year, we’ll celebrate the 28th anniversary of wireless service in America, since the launch of commercial cellular service in October 1983.

When I joined the wireless industry in January 1993, we had 11 million wireless customers in the country, and effectively everybody was an analog (voice-only) customer. In fact, until 1988, analog was the only technology allowed to be deployed.

In 1988, the FCC agreed to let cellular service providers experimentally deploy “ancillary” technologies – paving the way for the digital wireless revolution that exploded in the 1990s. In June 1995, there were just 448,481 digital wireless subscribers in the U.S. – less than two percent of the 28.2 million total wireless subscribers. Thirteen years later, digital accounted for 97 percent of all reported wireless subscribers.

What has the digital revolution meant for consumers? It’s increased the capacity of wireless systems, which means the networks can handle more traffic and more users. It’s also made an incredible variety of wireless services possible, from text messages to ringtones to the millions of applications.

From an all-voice (and only-voice) service in the early 1990s, wireless in the U.S. has grown to handle more than 2 trillion text messages and more than 388 billion MB of data a year by 2010.

But what about some recent reports that show a more gradual increase in text messages sent and received from 2009 to 2010 in our semi-annual survey? It is true that the percentage in growth isn’t as noticeable as the recent growth rate in total data traffic, but the numbers show Americans still send and receive plenty of texts.

I have a teenage daughter who’s regularly sending and receiving more messaging than we expected, so we accepted reality and selected the unlimited plan. I don’t know how many messages she and her friends exchanged last year, but I know they contributed to the additional 500 billion messages in 2010 compared to 2009.

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