Is there any way a time traveler could get reception with a cell phone ca. 1980?

One of those “things a stoner might ask” questions and I don’t even have the excuse of being stoned. It’s a question that came up after a discussion with a student about his time travel story that I just have to ask.

Scenario: you’re a time traveler. You’re in 1980, or for that matter anytime before cell phones were common place, but after push-button phones are commonplace. Your fully charged cell phone is with you, but obviously you can’t get a signal. (Cell phones have been around the '70s but obviously not everywhere and only for those who had a few thousand dollars to spare and didn’t mind lugging around a briefcase.)

Is there anything you could have transported back to you, other than a tower or your own satellite, that would enable you to use your cell phone to call landline phones? Any kind of portable transmitter or whatever that would allow your cell phone to be anything other than a paper weight?

Well, you’d have to be able to connect to whatever extant cellphone network there is, right? Apart from that, I don’t see how you could possibly do anything.

He could bring an older phone that does AMPS, which was the standard back then. He would just clone a phone he found with a scanner. Pretty simple.

You can easily find a modern phone that does both the modern protocols and AMPS.


Mine can be an alarm clock, a stopwatch, an appointment calendar, and a calculator. I can also jot down quick notes, and then send them so they’re saved in my Sent folder. My old phone had a few games, but this one is too cheap.

Don’t forget: It is great to use as a phone book, too! Save and edit all your numbers, never have to get new paper, it’s great!

And it is okay if the phone’s not fully charged. Just be sure to take the charger with you, because that part of the system is fully compatible with what they used back then!

You had a cellphone that did all that stuff in 1980? My brother’s computer couldn’t even do all that stuff in 1982.

No, he’s saying he has one now that can do all that, even when it can’t connect to a network.

Mine does all that and I can use it to watch television (DMB is the term here in South Korea).

My G1 would kick any normal computer’s butt back then. It’d still be useful, if not as a phone, and I find I use it a lot more as a palmtop then a phone anyway.

Well if the phone part doesn’t work, the time traveler could always just use the phone to connect to the Internet, and then communicate with people that way.

If the phone can’t connect to the cellphone networks for phone service, why would it be able to connect for Internet service? [I don’t really know how anything works, but such a situation would seem odd to me]

I was just being ironic since the Internet didn’t exist then (at least, not as we think of it today).

Heh, of course. I thought of that too, but then suppressed it. (I always personally think of the Internet as coming into existence in the mid-90s, but my nonspecific awareness that it’s actually much older than that in non-mainstream form leaves me with the ever-present dim fear that any particular lower bound I might care to put on it will quickly be pointed out as laughably ignorant.)

1980 was a year before I was born, but around 1990 the only kind of internet I knew of were your local basic BBS systems, combined w/ that lovely modem screech we all know and despise.

Were there even DNS servers and IP addresses back then? When AOL launched, that’s the first time I really remember connecting to any place beyond my local phone area code.

(Excluding telnet abilities through your local bbs… which would just connect you to another bbs somewhere else in the country.)

Back to the OP …

The telephone company today has portable cell towers called "COW"s = “Cellular on Wheels”. They’re about the size of small trucks and are brought to major crowd-creating events to provide extra capacity. Here’s some pix:

So you could bring one of those along & our cellphone could/would connect to it, at least for a range of a mile or so.

But they have to be connectd to the rest of the telephone infrastructure via wiring installed by the telco or via a microwave or other radio link. And I doubt the microwave / radio uphaul uses the same tech today as they used in 1980.

Another option is a “picocell” or “femtocell”. These are marketing terms for devices kind of like WiFi (802.11) wireless access points, but for cellphones. Imagine you live in a canyon and have crappy cellphone reception at home. You buy a pico cell, put it in your living room, and suddenly you’ve got great cellphone reception for a few hundred feet in any direction.

Like a WAP, you can set it to only recognize certain phones, so you’re not giving your neighbors “free” cellular service that’s really on your bill.

Just one problem. Picos/femtos use the internet to backhaul the trffic via VOIP to your cellular provider’s VOIP center, from which is then ends up as POTS wherever the call terminates. And none of that will be built until 2004-ish.
As a communications device, a modern cellphone would be a brick in 1980, pure and simple. Just like a CB radio would have been a brick in 1940, unless you had two of them.

Thats untrue. From the first result on a google search:

That phone supports AMPS, which was the standard at the time. Lots of phone supported AMPS because in some areas in the US that’s all there is, so theyre set to drop down to AMPS if they cant get CDMA/GSM. The time traveler will need to do a cloning hack to get on the network, but thats trivial compared to time travel.

According to the wiki article, AMPS wasn’t “officially introduced” until 1983, although there was a trial run in Chicago starting in 1978.

“Circa 1980” (as in the thread title) being somewhat fuzzily defined, it sounds to me as if a modern cellphone would be unlikely to be useful in 1980 proper, except maybe in Chicago (depending on the legth and extent of the trial run), but closer to 1985 it would be much more likely to be useable (depending on geographic location, I assume). Sound correct?

I took ca 1980 to mean the 1980s. There were no real cells before AMPS. You had odd ball stuff like IMTS and MTS, but modern phones dont support that anymore.

So I could see a scenario in the mid 1980s where someone could easily bring a modern phone that does AMPs and some basic cloning equipment and get on the network. IMTS looks pretty unsophisticated too. I think a determined attacker could easily compromise it with the right equipment. So there are scenarios where the time traveler could use a cell network, but he would need to plan ahead.

Going to ham radio equipment simplifies this considerably - you could head back with a useful handheld that would work with ham bands that existed then.

Also, there is the option of using CB radio - which was much more popular in 1980 than it is now.

Be sure to bring a hands-free headset to disguise your incredible looking phone. And a shopping cart with filled garbage bags to disguise your headset.

Yes. TCP/IP (which depends on IP addresses) goes back to the mid 1970s. The DNS system as we know it now goes back to 1984. See here for some more details.

Named internet addresses still existed before DNS. It’s just that until then, the mapping of names to IP numbers was managed by a centrally stored registry (NIC) that became unwieldy when the number of nodes grew too large.