The World’s First Mobile Phones Were Made In … Molodechno!

Everyone is accustomed to modern phones: rectangular plastic tiles with a bright screen that you can slide your finger on. And older people probably remember the “new Russians” of the post-perestroika era: in crimson jackets and with huge mobile phones. It is generally accepted that cellular communication appeared in Belarus in 1993, when Minskthe BelCel network was launched. But few people know that in USSR, including the Belarusian republic, mobile telephony actually appeared almost half a century ago. And in this we even overtook the Americans!

Calling from the car is the height of perfection! Photo from the magazine “Radio” for July 1968.

Mobile communications in the USSR appeared six years earlier than in the USA

First, let’s understand the terminology. What is mobile communication? In fact, this is any radio communication between mobile subscribers. Cellular communication is just a form of mobile communication.

The first mobile communication systems appeared in USA back in 1921 – these were ordinary radio stations that connected patrol police cars to the “base”. But such radios did not have access to public telephone networks and were not automatic. So we will consider a more familiar option as a mobile communication system: telephone communication, only without wires. I dialed the number and talked.

So, the world’s first fully automatic mobile communication system was created and put into operation in the USSR. The system was called “Altai“, And work on it began in 1958 in the Voronezh Research institutes communication. It was there that “telephones” and “base stations” were developed. The antennas were made at the Moscow State Specialized Design Institute. Leningraders worked on other components of Altai, and later enterprises from BSSR – in particular, the Sputnik plant in Molodechno.

The Altai system was advertised on the July 1968 cover of the Radio magazine.

Altai was supposed to become a full-fledged telephone installed in a car. It was possible to speak on it as on a regular telephone – it was enough to dial the number. It was not easy to realize this opportunity at the then technical level. Digital communication, of course, did not exist yet; the voice was broadcast in the usual way. But in addition to voice, it was necessary to transmit special signals, with the help of which the system could itself find a free radio channel, establish communication, transmit the dialed telephone number, etc. The equipment was installed in the car. Namely – in the trunk, and a tube with a disk was simply displayed in the car’s interior – which was later replaced with buttons.

In 1963, Altai was launched in Moscow… Party and business leaders were delighted with the new system. Car telephones soon appeared inZILah“And” Chaikas “of the upper echelons of the Soviet leadership. They were followed by the “Volga” directors of the largest enterprises.

Advertising of the Altai system in the Radio magazine in 1968.

Initially, Altai was not a full-fledged cellular system: one city together with the suburbs was served by only one base station, and only 16 subscribers could speak at a time. But for a small number of top bosses who had access to mobile communications, this was enough for the first time.

In the United States, a similar system was launched only in 1969. That is why for six whole years the USSR was the world leader in the field of mobile communications.

This is what the equipment installed in the trunk of the Volga looked like. Photo of the site

In the 1970s, the Altai system was actively developing. New radio channels were allocated, the range was changed, thanks to which it was possible to increase the “coverage area” and “network capacity”. The vacuum tubes were replaced first with transistors, and then with microcircuits. The equipment became more compact – it was already possible to carry the phone along with the batteries in a weighty suitcase.

By the mid-70s, Altai was already working in 114 cities of the Soviet Union, and in 1974 Minsk was added to this list. They decided to place the transmitting antenna on the television tower behind the television center on Kommunisticheskaya. For this, the top of the tower had to be replaced – for this purpose, a unique operation was carried out. The top was removed with a “flying crane” – a MI-10K helicopter, replaced with another – a platform with eight petals. They were equipped with antennas necessary for the operation of a new type of communication. As a result, the height of the Minsk TV tower decreased by 40 meters.

At the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, the communications of the modernized Altai-3M system were used very widely. Almost all journalistic reports from the competition passed through Altai. In fact, Soviet signalmen became the winners of the Olympics along with Soviet athletes. Of course, they did not get Olympic medals, but many leading developers received the USSR State Prize.

Cell phones “Volemot” of Belarusian production were going to be installed in summer cottages and rented to tourists

In total, by the beginning of the 1980s, the number of subscribers of the Altai system was about 25 thousand. And in order for the telephone without wires to become really massive, the development of the system was required – in particular, the transition to the now habitual use of many base stations covering neighboring areas of the territory. Scientists set about developing a new system called Volemot. This is an abbreviation for the names of the cities where the developers were located: Voronezh, Leningrad, Molodechno and Ternopil… A feature of “Volemot” was the ability to fully use many base stations – during a conversation you could switch from one of them to another without losing connection (now this function is called “handover” – it allows you to talk on the move). Therefore, the Volemot system has become a full-fledged cellular communication. It also supported automatic roaming: a Volemot device registered in the network of one city could be used in another.

The hopes for a new system were enormous. The telephone was supposed to turn from a “suitcase” into a “brick”, telephones were going to be installed in villages and summer cottages for collective use, they wanted to rent them out to tourists, the call service from “Volemot” could appear on trains or buses. And in the future – a full-fledged cellular communication system, covering the entire USSR. However, it was not possible to obtain the necessary funding for the project, and the implementation of the system proceeded very slowly. But by the end of the 90s, the system was launched in 18 cities of the USSR.

On every phone sold, “outbid” earned $ 1200

“I then worked in the Soviet of Ministers’ garage in Moscow,” recalls Nikolai Amusov, now a businessman. – All this economy was first used by the party bosses, how many black Volgas we have drilled holes under the antennas – do not count. Well, as the Union collapsed, the apparatuses went to the businessmen and gangster masses. At this point we began to punch holes in the roofs of 600 Mercedes cars. This continued until real cellular service came in.

The speculators profited very well from the sale and installation of telephones. “Komsomolskaya Pravda” managed to find the price list of the Molodechno plant “Sputnik” for 1999. The plant was ready to ship Volemot phones in any quantity at a price of 96 million Belarusian rubles apiece. With the then rate of 240 thousand per dollar, it turned out to be $ 400 per device.

“And we sold such devices for $ 1600,” recalls the Moscow businessman Viktor Rankov, who in the 90s organized a company to sell and install mobile phones. – However, the price included the installation. Most of the devices were produced by the Molodechno plant – they were very praised for their quality, in contrast, for example, from the Voronezh ones.

At the end of the 90s, the Volemot system could not withstand the arrival of competitors – first, analog cellular communication from BelCel, and later – digital from Velcom and MTS. The Molodechno plant “Sputnik” itself did not cope with the arrival of the new time. In the mid-2000s, he became the leader of the Minsk region in terms of the volume of debts to the tax budget. For example, in 2009 he owed $ 630,000 to the budget. In 2011, they tried to save the plant and merged it with the Electromodul plant, which produces electrical units for trucks and tractors. But it did not help.

In these workshops, when they assembled super-modern mobile phones “Volemot”. Photo: Ministry of Industry of Belarus.


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