The dawn of mobile and e-mail: Telecom in the 1980s

Digital World Blog

After the introduction of computer-led network operation in the late 1970s, the telecommunications industry was in for even bigger changes in the 1980s.

The new decade would usher in enormous changes in technology, industry structure, policy and regulation.

The innovative eighties heralded mobile telephony, the first standards for e-mail, and an accelerating convergence between computing and communication technologies.

The flagship conference and exhibition series of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) kept pace with the industry’s exciting evolution.

At World TELECOM ’83, then ITU Secretary-General Richard Butler called for debates on “the planning, financial management and implementation of the world telecommunication network” to accelerate the transfer of information, infrastructure and development.

Telecom 1983, Geneva: Telecom 83 was an Exhibition of ITU member countries, their entities and industries, in other words “an exhibition for all”, as ITU Secretary General Richard E. Butler put it

Telecom 1983, Geneva: An exhibition of ITU member countries, their entities and industries, in other words “an exhibition for all”, as ITU Secretary General Richard E. Butler (pictured above) put it. Image credit: ITU

The expanding power and global reach of telecommunications and information technology had brought with it a renewed commitment for government and industry to work together for social good, especially in developing or less developed nations.

Standard-setting for the digital dawn

Policy and regulatory issues centred on network ownership and operating monopolies.

Other topics of the 1980s remain highly relevant today: the regulation of trans-border data flow in a global communications network; ensuring security and control of content and services; and the need for data skills – or, as Mr Butler put it at World TELECOM ‘87, “a large increase in the number of qualified personnel” joining the telecoms sector.

“Enormous potential for growth and development for the underprivileged countries of the world,” he said, “will only be guaranteed if the right people can be found and educated to perform the mission which awaits them.”

The beginning of the decade saw the launch of the first commercial cellular radio systems. These were on prominent display at Telecom, alongside integrated services digital network technology (ISDN), optical fibre and rural communications systems. For industry insiders, however, the clear star of World TELECOM ‘87 was a highly promising series of recommendations known as X.400.

These defined international standards for the data communication networks to support message handling systems (MHS) – what would soon become famous as electronic mail or e-mail.

Twenty-one companies came together on one exhibition stand for the biggest demonstration to date of a fully global messaging network.

While working together to set up the basic infrastructure and increase the global market for X.400 products, the same vendors would compete vigorously over user interfaces and services. This fine balance of competition and collaboration called for sensitive regulation. International standards – then as now – were essential to allow for convergence and harmonization across the new networks.

Too much of a good thing?

Mobile, satellite and e-mail became firmly established as the technologies of the future. Convergence between telecoms and computing was intensifying.

The looming impact of these breakthroughs on economies and societies was obvious. But so, too, was the need to consider negative aspects and to anticipate potential misuse or unwanted side effects of the ongoing revolution in communication.

“Perhaps we could set a course which would avoid effects such as human contacts being largely replaced by electronic communication or an excess of communication which people would be unable to escape from,” said Mr Butler in 1987, with evident foresight.

It might well be one of the first calls for digital detox on record.


In this new series of articles marking the 50th anniversary of ITU Telecom, we look back at five decades of change for the industry, ITU and the flagship conference and exhibition series. The next installment revisits the 1990s.

Find out more on the 50th anniversary of ITU Telecom events – and on this year’s edition, ITU Digital World 2021, taking place online from September to December.

Header image depicts Telecom 1983, Geneva: The Exhibition was an excellent setting for international contacts and business relations. Credit: ITU

This blog was originally published on ITU News.

About the Author

Digital World

Accelerating ICT innovation to improve lives faster. The global event for SMEs corporates and governments.

Share this