Maritimes Scanning Site
The General Land Mobile Radiotelephone
and Exchange Area Radiotelephone Service (EARS)
and the introduction of Cell and PCS
Last updated July 31, 2008
© 2008, MARITIMES SCANNING SITE, all rights reserved
Today, everyone has a cell phone, usually described nowadays by the companies as "PCS". This means that a typical household has several telephone numbers, so no wonder we are running out of them! Cell phones have become a common fact of life since they were introduced commercially in North America in 1983, and suddenly it ceased to be unusual to be able to telephone someone from wherever you happened to be. In fact it now seems like an unforgivable nuisance to have no cell service or have a call drop.
But what was there before the cellular telephone? I can tell you that in or about 1983 I used my amateur radio transceiver to make what hams call a phone patch into the telephone system. I did this from my high school classroom in front of my class. Many of them were quite impressed when I got through on the radio to an absent student to ask how he was doing while out sick. Back then the idea of mobile communications was something that really only happened mostly in the military or with ships and airplanes. Not many private individuals had the capability to do what I did. I can tell you that my call was a pain to make. I had a portable transceiver that had to reach an amateur repeater located about 10 miles away and over a hill. I had to first access the repeater and then dial up the phone number, and push to talk and release to listen. The signal was readable but not great. And this was not a whole lot better than what the commercial systems were like. But then again hardly any private individual could do this. And was my class impressed! But all that changed in what seemed like an instant in history just a few months along from then.
Of course there had been mobile phone calls for a while. The first successful commercial mobile telephone service (MTS) began in 1946 in the USA, with 6 channels. This number of channels was later increased to 11 in the VHF band in the USA, and later to even more in Canada. Here in Canada the service was officially called the General Land Mobile Radiotelephone Service. The bulky tube-type transceiver in a vehicle would transmit on a 152 MHz frequency to a receiving tower connected to an operator. The operator would manually connect the mobile user to the landline telephone system. The operator and the person being contacted would have their side of the conversation sent out to the vehicle on a corresponding 157-158 MHz signal. This was not a repeater, but rather a duplex system, similar to what taxis still use today. At first everything was manual, and the mobile user had to push to talk.
By the time IMTS (Improved Mobile Telephone Service) came along in 1964, there was no need to push to talk, usually no need for an operator, and automatic selection of a clear channel. Not only that, the equipment had begun to be transistorized and therefore much less bulky.
But, speaking of clear channels, there weren't many. Just imagine a city of any size having just a maximum of 11 channels, each covering a radius of 50 km or more. This means that in that area only 11 conversations could be going on. It was very hard to get a free channel in anything but a rural area, and even there it was difficult as fewer channels were provided, for economic reasons. As time went on other channels in the UHF band and in the VHF low band were added but still there were not enough. For this reason, telephone companies (who ran the systems) were not able to take on all the potential subscribers. In 1976 New York City is said to have had only 545 MTS subscribers and over 3700 people on the waiting list! One effect of this channel shortage was that the companies could charge a great deal for the service, and in fact needed to, to cover equipment costs.
The standard 30 kHz spaced frequency pairs for MTS/IMTS as generally shown in American sources extend from 152.51 to 152.84 MHz; however three others that may have been only used in Canada are also shown. Following the basic 30 kHz channels are the later "interstitial" 15kHz channels. I have been unable to determine if these were used outside of Canada. The channel designations seem quite bizarre to me, with no reason for them ever having been encountered.
|Channel||Base Transmit||Mobile Transmit|
VHF High Band
Click here for a map of the Maritimes from around 1980 showing coverage areas. Channels are designated as in the preceding chart. Note that coverage was not complete; however it was likely usable beyond the zone edges shown.
Note that there was a separate system for dedicated users called the Community Repeater System. While the above system was on "public" channels and open to any subscriber, the Community Repeater System was built by the telephone company for the use of just a few business users within one area. One frequency was provided in an area and it was shared by a number of businesses who were separated only by the CTCSS tone used. Click here for a Nova Scotia map from around the same era as the MTS map linked above. There was a similar Community Repeater system geared towards fisherman, with at least four separate repeater towers in Southwest Nova Scotia, and perhaps others elsewhere in our region. I plan to show maps for this service when I can locate them!
In a British Columbia frequency directory from 1991 there were many of the above frequencies still listed. In addition it appeared that there may actually have been yet another subdivision of the spectrum with a 5 kHz spacing and designated by channel number. For example 152.825 (XY) is Channel 198. 152.83, not shown above, is Channel 199. 152.835 is Channel 200, and 152.84 (JW) is Channel 201. These in-between channels, such as 199 and 200 do not appear to have been in widespread use, if at all.
Along the way two other MTS bands were created as charted below; however I am not sure that these were utilized outside the United States, although they were allocated.
|Channel||Base Frequency||Mobile Frequency|
|VHF Low Band|
Canada, but not apparently the USA, had another 400 MHz band, from 420.0125 to 420.9875 (base output), and corresponding 409 MHz (mobile outputs) . You will note that this allocation takes up the complete 409 and 420 MHz portions of the spectrum. This band was in use in Vancouver as late as 1990, and possibly in other cities as well.
The first commercially viable cellular system in North America was launched in 1983 by the Ameritech company. It is interesting to note that the cellular concept was developed much quicker in other parts of the world, especially in Scandinavia, and even today the largest producer of cell phone handsets is Nokia, based in Finland. In that region there are more cell phones than there are people!
The first North American systems (Canada and USA) were in the 800 MHz band and signals were analog. The band had been made available by the clawing back of the upper channels of the UHF television band (Channels 71 to 83). This provided many many more channels than were available in the old MTS systems. But this was not the big news! The essential difference from MTS other than miniaturization was the use of the cell concept. In this concept the base and mobile transmitters would have very low power but there would be many many base stations or "towers". Due to the low power the users in one area or cell would not interfere with those two or three cells away but on the same frequencies. Adjacent cells would have different frequencies. You would drive along using Channel 99 for example, in Cell A, and when that began to fade the system would detect that the next cell should take over, and seamlessly the user would go to say, Channel 56, without even knowing it. That would mean that someone else could use 99 back in the first cell, and in a few minutes you might go on into yet another cell and maybe use its Channel 99. All of this is based on computer control of course. Ease of use and the relative assurance of service was wonderful and subscriptions soared.
Cell phones for the first few years used analog transmissions and could be detected on communications scanners, and eventually in reaction to lobbying by the cell industry it became illegal to sell a scanner in the USA that could receive on the 800 MHz cell band. This was not done in Canada, where the concept of the actual airwaves being public has continued. Later the transmission mode changed to digital so that all new cell phones are undetectable on scanners, even those that can receive the 800 MHz cell frequencies.. Beginning in 1994 the next stage of cellular implementation was the freeing of a large band of frequencies in the 1900 MHz range, so that all new cell phones are dual-band in North America. The 1900 band is now the standard in urban areas of North America, but some 800 MHz service remains, especially in rural areas. When 1900 was introduced it brought a greater emphasis on data such a text messaging, internet and other services additional to voice calls. With this came a new designation: PCS (personal communication service).... but most of us still call it a cell phone. By the way, in most other parts of the world the users call their phone a mobile phone, not a cell phone. which brings us back to the Mobile phones of the 70's and earlier....
At the time that cellular was introduced there were only less than 500,000 mobile phone users in the USA, but by that number was almost instantly overtaken by cellular as it spread quickly across the continent. The bottom fell out of the MTS market, so that by 1990 it was basically gone in all but the farthest rural reaches of this continent.
It may be that in the larger provinces with vast areas of sparsely populated regions that cell service is not yet ubiquitous, and the MTS might yet be of some importance. Here in the Maritimes the MTS service is pretty much gone. As of 2006 there was still MTS usage in Newfoundland, and in northern New Brunswick. Some of the frequencies in the 152 and 157/158 range have been reallocated to other users. For example the town of Kensington in PEI is on 152.51/158.085, which isnt even a standard use of the pairs shown in the chart above.
This page has dealt with mobile telephone service, but operating in conjunction with the mobile service was service to remote land-based ("fixed") subscribers. Generally this included telephone users who were beyond the economical reach of telephone poles and wires. There certainly remain some users in Canada who fall into this category. The service specifically for them is called Exchange Area Radiotelephone Service but it uses the exact same frequencies and facilities as the Mobile Radiotelephone Service. Here in the Maritimes there appears to be some residual use of this service as seen in the following chart.
The following locations remain for what appear to be MTS frequency pairs, and licenced to Aliant and/or Bell
152.57/157.83 Five Finger
152.6/157.86 Seven Mile Ridge
152.63/157.89 Five Finger
152.66/157.92 Quaco Head (St Martins)
152.72/157.98 Ashton Hill, Seven Mile Ridge
152.75/158.01 Kouchibouguac (licenced to Parks Canada)
152.78/158.04 Bathurst, Rapids
152.795/158.055 Parker Ridge
A search of TAFL will reveal a number of remote base stations using the opposite pair, implying that they operate into the sites shown above. It is obvious that these users are likely beyond the range of the cellular and landline systems.
In July 2008 Telus was applying to the CRTC to end a similar service in British Columbia on the grounds that repairs to existing equipment were no longer possible and new equipment no longer available. It was suggested that users could do one of two things: use cellular service with a high gain antenna, which would be supplied by Telus, or could use satellite service, and in that case a subsidy would be provided. Obviously it would be to the company's advantage to discontinue the EARS service.