A Little Cellular History – What Life Was Like Before Smartphones and Unlimited Everything


Anyone under the age of about 35 takes it for granted that cellular phones have always been available to everyone, with massive functionality and the ability to have just about unlimited everything included in your monthly bill.

However, this wasn’t true 25 years ago, in the early years of cellular phones.

Back then, cellular phones were just that: phones. The term “smartphone” hadn’t yet been invented, so I suppose it would be accurate to have called these early models “stupid phones”.

Also, believe it or not, back then you paid, by the minute, for both outgoing AND incoming calls. And for your monthly charge, you got a small allotment of minutes, after which you then paid a per-minute charge for all calls. The good old days weren’t always good old days…

What follows is a story I wrote in 1996 about my experience as an early adopter of what was then merely called cellular phones.

After having read all the stories about people being saved in emergencies because they carried a portable cellular phone, I’ve watched the prices drop recently until they finally reached the level I could afford. Namely, free.

You have probably noticed that lately there is always at least one store advertising that it will give you a free cellular phone, the catch being that you must sign a new phone activation and service contract. More about this later.

Nevertheless, free is a price seldom available, so I went to my local electronics store to make inquiries.

It turns out that the free model is approximately the size and weight of a brick. Since I want something I can carry around in my pocket I decided to go with a small, lightweight model, which is still surprisingly affordable at $49.95.

I know there has to be a catch here somewhere. It’s even loaded with what must be very sophisticated features because I still haven’t figured them out.

“Does it come with a battery?” I asked, showing I wasn’t to be outwitted like the time I went to buy a personal computer and later found out the advertised price didn’t include the monitor. How do they expect you to see what you’ve computed? With a Vulcan mind-meld?

“Of course it comes with a battery,” the salesperson assured me, “otherwise how could you use it? Umm, will you be wanting to recharge the battery?”

“Do you mean it doesn’t come with a charger?”

“Oh, it does but it has to be plugged into a wall socket. That doesn’t do you much good when your car breaks down on a lonely road and you can’t call for help because the battery is dead. You’ll need the car cigarette lighter adapter. Only $49.95. By the way, do you have a place in your car to hold the phone?”

“I thought I’d just put it on the seat, right?”

“Well, the problem with that is if you slam on the brakes your phone becomes part of the dashboard. You’ll need the universal holder. Only $29.95.”

So I bought the package, leaving the store before I could be talked into buying stock in the cellular company, which by the way I should have done.

It turns out that the real costs were yet to come.

For example, with a cellular phone, you pay a monthly fee whether or not you use it. And if you exceed the thirty minutes of free air time per month they give you, you pay a per-minute charge approximately equal to what a lawyer would charge you, which incidentally you’ll need if you try to get out of your cellular contract.

Plus, you pay for all calls, outgoing AND incoming. That’s right, when you call someone you pay for it, and when someone calls you, you pay for it. I believe there’s also a charge on your monthly bill for the postage it took to send it to you, as well as the paper it’s printed on and the cost of the ink.

All of which prompted me to have a family discussion about the phone.

“Now look, kids, we get thirty minutes of free air time, so this phone is for emergencies only. And you must talk fast and get off right away.”

Naturally, the first phone bill had fifty-four calls on it, each about one minute in length.

“But they were short calls, you said to get off right away, remember?”

“I also said it was for emergencies. Do you mean to tell me we had fifty-four emergencies last month? The Fire Department doesn’t have that many!”

What’s more, since it’s portable and I take it with me everywhere (that’s the point, right?), it will invariably ring at inopportune or embarrassing times. Like when I’m at the theater. Or the library. Or in the stall at a public restroom (wait until you see the looks you’ll get for that one).

And I HAVE to answer it because I told the kids it was for emergencies. Only I still apparently haven’t defined the word “emergency” well enough or they wouldn’t call to tell me that “Jimmy is sticking his tongue out at me and won’t stop.”

But after several months I’ve worked out the bugs in cellular phone ownership. We’ve carefully defined the word emergency (has to include unconsciousness and/or profuse bleeding), I’ve finally figured out how to turn down the volume of the ring so it can’t be heard outside of a restroom stall, and, best of all, I only have two more months left in my service contract.

Then I can get rid of the bloody thing.

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