The 1990 World Cup and the Debut of "Portable" Phones

07/18/2006 - 00:00 AM

  • The 1990 World Cup and the Debut of "Portable" Phones
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In June 1990, just before the start of the soccer world cup, the ETACS network connecting the first cellular phones, then known as “portables”, came into operation in all the Italian cities where matches were to be played between the various national sides. Journalists, sporting officials and footballers were thus the first to try out and publicize a brand-new device destined for undreamt-of success.

Portable phones were presented to the public for the first time in March 1990. SIP, then the national telephone company, offered two models, the Nokia Cityman and the Motorola Micro Tac. Both were the same size as a normal handset and incorporated all the necessary elements into a single unit, battery included. They weighed about 400 grams and were good for approximately an hour of conversation. The Nokia Cityman cost 2.8 million lire and the Motorola Micro Tac 3.9. The monthly subscription charge was 50,625 lire and there was an initial “one-off” activation fee of 200,000. The average ordinary rate was about 453 lire a minute rising to 703 in “peak periods”.
Operating on the 900 Mhz waveband, the first cellular network of mobile telephony (ETACS) initially connected only the cities located along the two stretches of expressway from Turin to Venice and Milan to Naples.

Champions with Cell Phones

After their launch with the 1990 World Cup in Italy, cell phones seemed to become the inseparable companions of soccer, tennis and cycling champions in the space of a few months. According to the company magazine Selezionando SIP, these were joined in 1991 by the presidents, trainers and managers of all the soccer clubs in the Italian championship. The same article quotes Walter Zenga, then goalkeeper for Italy and Inter, as suggesting a possible syndrome of “cellular dependency” for his colleagues in the national side, all of whom had portables. Gian Luca Vialli, one of the best-known Italian players at the time, also expressed a prudent and cautious attitude. He described the new device as useful and amusing but maintained that it should be used with care so as to avoid being constantly inundated with calls. Adriano Panatta, the captain of Italy’s Davis Cup team, found the cell phone indispensable to keep up with his numerous non-sporting commitments in advertising and television.
The champions mentioned by the SIP magazine included the famous sprint cyclist Marco Cipollini, who was photographed deep in conversation during a stage of the Giro d’Italia, one hand on the handlebar and the other holding a cell phone. That shot was picked up by the press throughout Italy.

Before the Portable

Before portable phones were launched, mobile telephony was understood exclusively as the use of a car telephone. The portable led to an authentic revolution in the sector with an upswing in subscriptions, which rose by 400% between 1989 and 1990. The threshold of 500,000 users was crossed in 1991.
Italy soon reached first place in Europe for rate of growth and third place for number of subscribers after Great Britain and Sweden.

Number of mobile telephone subscribers in Italy (1985-1991)

1985       6,415
1986       9,044
1987    16,534
1988    33,609
1989    66,076
1990    265,962
1991    567,535

Source
Data from Selezionando SIP, 1990, nos. 2,3 and 4; 1991, no. 7/8.