NATEL – mobile telephony in Switzerland
In 1978, the PTT launched the national car phone – in short Natel. It was the first time in Switzerland that it was possible to make a phone call using a “suitcase phone” while on the road. Mobile telephony had begun its journey to success. A status symbol in the early days, mobile phones in Switzerland became common everyday items as early as the turn of the millennium.
Behind the scenes, however, the history of mobile telephony had already begun in the post-war years with the company Autophon AG in Solothurn. The company developed the first mobile handset in the country, basing it on police radio equipment. A “Radiovox” set, as the system was called, took up half the luggage space in the boot of a car. As suggested by the term “radio” in the brand name, it was based on wireless technology. On 9th June 1949, the Zurich transport company Welti-Furrer were the first business to use Radiovox sets in their entire fleet, allowing each of them to be contactable by telephone. Three years later, Switzerland even saw the launch of the first system in the world with fully automated dial-up between vehicle and stationary telephone subscriber. The first vehicles to be connected were from various industrial firms in Zurich as well as the Lake Zurich motor vessel Linth, followed later by various other taxi and transport companies. The “mobile telephones”, however, did not have a very long range; they only worked within a 25-kilometre radius of the stationary transmitter/receiver. By 1975, Switzerland had 62 independent networks with a fairly substantial total of 1300 subscribers.
The next step towards mobility was taken in 1978, when the devices became portable. The PTT, together with the companies Autophon AG, Brown Boveri & Cie and Standard Telefon und Radio AG, launched the “Natel A”, or “Nationales Autotelefon” [National Car Phone], the first countrywide mobile telephony system. Besides models that were built into cars, portable devices in carry cases were also now available – though these still weighed a hefty 15 kilograms. ‘Mobile’, at that stage, was still not very portable. Depending on the model, a Natel A cost between 8,000 and 10,000 Swiss francs; in today’s money this would amount to approximately 20,000 francs. Added to this was a monthly standing charge of 130 francs. A three-minute phone call would cost you 5 Swiss francs. The PTT promised its customers that the mobile phone costs of 11 to 16 francs per working day would be offset by the savings in the number of journeys and personnel costs. Clearly, the high costs led to car phones quickly becoming status symbols. In Zurich, the demand rose to such an extent that various applicants for a Natel A were simply denied. Consequently, one such customer’s letter of complaint in 1979 bemoaned the fact that many subscribers were only using their devices as mere status symbols, as it seemed unlikely that they were making business calls while sitting in traffic after work.
The Natel A system, essentially, was a small analogue radio unit, which automatically dialled into the telephone network via radio. At that time Switzerland was divided into five network supply areas, each of which had its own dialling code. Therefore, in order to reach a mobile subscriber, one had to know the specific area the person was in. In any case, things were still rather complicated in those early days. It could take up to two minutes to get a connection. Once the call was connected, one had to be quick; all calls were automatically disconnected after three minutes because otherwise there was a risk that the network would become overloaded. Anyone using a Natel A had to be brief. It was not suitable for having a chat.
Dead zones in mountainous regions or street canyons were part of everyday life. This obviously led to complaints: “It is probably no secret that Natel car phone systems are far from satisfactory. Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that I have poured 11,000 francs per device plus charges down the drain” wrote an unhappy customer to the PTT just a few months after the network was launched.
Early advertising therefore targeted business people, who were on the road a lot and for whom time was at a premium: managers, tradespeople, small business owners. The advertisements were usually directed at men. One notable exception, at least, was a bouncy rhyme directed at the modern woman. She drove a Volkswagen Golf: “This is Claudia von Arx, journalist. She delivers with speed the news for you to read.” Claudia von Arx can be seen nonchalantly using her phone while driving. This was a popular advertising motif and using the phone while driving was not in fact prohibited in the early days of mobile telephony. Nevertheless, from as early as 1979, the PTT was already advising its customers to pay attention to the road and not to make calls while driving. However, automatic fines for using a phone without hands-free equipment were not introduced until 1996. Before that, the police had to actually press charges. The Federal Supreme Court eventually added the writing of text messages to the list of gross traffic violations in 2009. This now carries a sentence of up to three years in prison or a hefty fine.
The Natel A was subsequently replaced by Natel B and later by Natel C, both analogue systems. Every time a new system was introduced, the old one was still operational for a certain period of time. The digital Natel D system was launched in 1992. It was based on the European GSM system. The devices quickly became more compact and affordable and were generally no longer produced in Switzerland. Thanks to the lower costs of the phones and subscriptions, mobile telephony was able to establish itself as part of everyday life. Another aspect that contributed to its success was the introduction in 1995 of SMS technology. More and more, phone calls were replaced by the 160 characters of a short message. From the turn of the millennium onwards, landline telephony began to be impacted by mobile technology. In 2002, Swiss mobile phone subscriptions outnumbered landlines for the first time. And since 2007, Switzerland’s mobile phone subscriptions have even exceeded population numbers. That same year Apple introduced its iPhone and started a trend towards the dispensing of buttons in favour of smartphones with touchscreens. Thanks to apps that can be purchased separately, the mobile phone has become a multifunctional device. Telephone, Internet browser, social networking device, Walkman, timetable, camera, diary, torch and compass now all fit into the same device that we can carry around in our back pockets.
What remained constant for a long time was the name, Natel. Used and understood in all four national languages, the term was even trademarked by Swisscom when the PTT lost its mobile phone monopoly in 1999. In 2017, however, Swisscom decided to drop the word ‘Natel’ and it is now no longer used for its mobile phone packages. How long the Helvetism survives in everyday parlance remains to be seen...
For further reading:
- Museum für Kommunikation (ed.): Telemagie. 150 Jahre Telekommunikation in der Schweiz. Bern 2002, pp. 170-197.
Dr. phil. Juri Jaquemet
curator of the information and communication technology collection
Museum of Communication, Bern