Mobile phones in the Nordic countries: historical overview

The Nordic mobile telephone network Nordisk MobilTelefoni (NMT) opened in 1981 quickly becoming the world’s largest until the early 2000s when it was superseded by the digital GSM network. Unlike the original Nordic telecommunications companies which were state-owned, mobile providers remain private. Since the turn of the century and certainly since the rise of the smartphone from 2007-8, access to a range of media via the mobile phone has increased so much that it is difficult to function without it leading some to question its grip on everyday life.

women sitting at table with a mobile phone in a cafe setting
The Nordic countries have been exceptionally receptive to mobile telecommunications. Photo: Jason Briscoe, Unsplash

The Nordic countries have been exceptionally receptive to mobile telecommunications, and it may be no coincidence that two of the brands that dominated the world market for more than a decade – Nokia and Ericsson (later Sony Ericsson) – were Nordic companies. The Nordic countries led the way with the analog Nordisk MobilTelefoni (NMT) network, which opened in 1981 and soon became the world’s largest mobile network, until being superseded by the digital GSM network in the early 2000s.

Whereas mobile phones were unwieldy and uncommon until the late 1980s, the vast majority of people in the Nordic countries now have a mobile phone. Contemporary cellphones depend on a dense network of transmitters, and the large size and low population density of the region (excepting Denmark), and the mountainous topography in many areas, has made it a considerable challenge to ensure satisfactory coverage. Some areas remain mobile-free (out of coverage), but they are shrinking.

The diversity of services available on mobile phones increases every year. Until the mid-1990s, they were largely used in the same way as stationary phones. Since the turn of the century, text messages became much more widespread as a means of keeping in touch, especially among young people with limited budgets. Integrated cameras, diaries, games, music players and Internet facilities are now commonplace, and the Nordic companies have been instrumental in developing new services. Indeed, around 2007–08, the mobile morphed into the smartphone. As a result, the mobiles now in common use are far more than telephones – actually, they can be described as polymedia with which one may also, in addition to everything else, make calls. Unlike the original Nordic telecommunications companies, which were state-owned, mobile providers are private, and there is fierce competition.

Together with the Internet, with which it has now fused, mobile telephony has created a culture of constant availability, and some critical voices have been raised against its consequences for social relations and for that coveted cultural value, peace and quiet. A few restrictions have been introduced on the use of cell phones in public spaces.

Further reading:

  • Rich Ling, Taken for Grantedness: The Embedding of Mobile Communication Into Society (Boston: MIT Press, 2012)
  • Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Tyranny of the Moment: Fast and Slow Time in the Information Age (London: Pluto, 2001)