Celebrating 25 Years of Mobile History in Estonia

In the spring of 1991, Estonian-Finnish-Swedish joint company Eesti Mobiiltelefon (EMT) opened the first mobile network in Estonia. Today, quarter of a century later, we can see how the rapid development of mobile technology has changed our lives.

Most of us probably remember getting our first smartphone, but what were the developments that 25 years ago laid the foundation for the local mobile revolution? Let’s take a quick look at history.

Mobile era in Estonia began on June 1, 1991, when EMT opened its mobile network that was built on the NMT 450 technology. At the time, only some Estonians were able to afford a mobile phone – in today’s prices the phone cost €1,500, while an average salary was €10 a month. The same applied to call rates – a few minutes could cost as much as an average monthly salary. Because of this, the beginning of mobile era was quite modest, and by the end of 1991, only 150 subscribers used EMT’s services. At this time, we made a quite optimistic prognosis in terms of subscriber numbers – we predicted that the total size of the market could be 6,500 users. However, just as with several others world-changing technologies, the potential of mobile telephony was greatly underestimated in the beginning of the 1990s.

The development of mobile technology was still clearly visible. In 1993, EMT began the development of GSM, the new generation mobile network, and the first GSM base stations were opened in Tallinn in August. It was not easy to become a GSM subscriber – it required a mandatory bank guarantee or a prepayment balance of at least 5,000 EEK. By 1995, EMT had a solid GSM network, and by the end of the year, high-quality coverage was available in all county centers and on main highways. From July 1995, it was possible to send SMSs. In the beginning, EMT used Sonera’s Finnish SMS center for providing the SMS service.

By 1996, EMT had 100,000 subscribers.

In 1999 it became possible to buy Coca Cola with a mobile phone. The Baltic Times wrote an article about this: http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/1132/. Unfortunately this project did not live long, but there were also several other similar test services launched.

In 2000, WAP service was launched in Estonia. WAP enabled using mobile to phone to read online news, book tickets, view weather forecast, etc. Thus, it was the first small step to offer mobile users access to the Internet. As it is common with many other novel services, it was a very slow start and WAP was more of a niche service. Äripäev wrote in January 2000: “Currently, only one mobile phone model that supports WAP services is available in Estonia - Nokia 7110. It costs around 7,000 EEK. So far, 200 of these phones have been sold.“

In 2000, another notable service was developed – EMT made a revolution in the mobile world by launching mobile parking. The solution is still revolutionary in most countries today. Also in 2000, mobile positioning service was launched giving the first responders the ability to find people who are lost or in need of help faster. In 2001, mobile internet gained speed – in June, GPRS data transmission was launched, which enabled speeds up to 53 Kbps. This removed barriers from Internet usage, as it was no longer necessary to pay with voice minutes for reading text from the screen.

Sending pictures to others via mobile phone had its beginning in 2003, when MMS (multimedia service) was launched. However, at first, it was hard to find someone to send a MMS.

In 2003, Internet speeds increased rapidly. In the summer, the 236 Kbps EDGE network was launched.

Then, in October of 2004, Telia launched commercially the new generation 3G network making video calls and moving pictures a reality. By the next summer, we were surfing at 3.6 Mbps, and the speeds kept growing in the following years. In 2005, 3G network covered the whole of Estonia.

In 2007, Estonia introduced Mobile ID service to the world. Even today, Mobile ID is still a mystery for the outside world – how can personal ID be in a mobile phone, and how is it possible to sign documents and vote in elections with a mobile phone?

In the coming years, Internet speeds kept growing. In 2010, rolled out its lightning fast 4G mobile network where speeds reached 100 Mbps. By 2013, the whole country was with the 4G network.

In 2014, thanks to 4G, TV and other entertainment became available in the most remote corners of the country as EMT and Elion launched the joint minuTV service for smartphones. The same summer, Spotify opened its service to Estonian users.

In 2016 Internet and TV reached everywhere were cable does not reach – Telia launched the 4G-based Home Internet service. Telia also launched roaming service that enables voice, messaging, and data services in the Nordic and Baltic countries at Estonian rates.

In the beginning of 2016, Telia had more than 863,000 mobile subscribers, and more than 291,000 of them are active mobile internet users.

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