Happy 20th birthday, GSM

GSM followed three rules to global revolution. Today's revolutionaries take note
Written by Leader , Contributor on

On 7 September, 1987, representatives from 13 countries sat around a table in Copenhagen and signed the Groupe Spécial Mobile memorandum of understanding. This committed them to work together to create and deploy a digital mobile-phone system across Europe. They hoped for maybe 20 million users by the end of the century; by the time 2000 arrived, they had quarter of a billion.

That breakneck growth has continued, even if its true significance has yet to sink in. Over a third of the world's population now have GSM-compatible phones — nearly 90 percent of the mobile-phone market — and there is good reason to believe the next third will join them before long. This is a true global revolution with more and longer-lasting implications for human society than Marxism has ever managed.

How this happened will fill textbooks for years to come. The standard had to overcome political, commercial, technical and cultural barriers, any one of which could have sunk it. While the technical standards were superbly engineered, the biggest problem was not in making the equipment or designing the protocols but getting countries and companies working together, not just in name but in spirit.

Before GSM, Europe had a disastrous mishmash of national analogue standards in phones and TV, designed to protect national industries but instead creating fragmented markets vulnerable to big guns from abroad. With GSM, it had a unified market larger than the US's, held together by an open standard and fired by competition at each level of the network. That great success led to even greater things.

Most importantly, GSM took over the world through means as unfashionable today as anything from the 1980s. Spectrum was awarded to those who promised the best service, not those with the biggest wallets. The technical standards were comprehensive, definitive and imposed by Europe-wide regulatory fiat, in an environment still defined by state-owned monopoly telcos. The memorandum of understanding that created all this was merely an agreement, not an organisation — the GSM Association didn't actually exist until 1995.

GSM teaches us that by following three rules — mutual interests, open standards and a fair market — you can change the world for the better and make a decent profit in the process. Not a bad present for a 20th birthday — or the 21st century.

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