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CommonTime Enterprise Mobility Blog

The Pager: A 100 Year History in Brief

Long before the invention of the smartphone – even the feature phone – pagers were a common method of communication. More than that, the humble pager was somewhat of a status symbol. Once seen hanging on the belt of every yuppie across The City, pagers are now rarely spotted outside of a hospital.

It has been a long journey from shining beacon of technological progress to ever growing hardware graveyard. And Vodafone’s decision to axe the network’s remaining pager services has been widely hailed as a final death knell. So, what better time than this crucial juncture to reflect on the near 100 year history of the pager and how the future of critical communications are evolving today.

Early History and Adoption

The first pager-style system is widely reported to have roots in the Boston Police Department. Between 1921 - 1927, a Boston patrolman partnered with an engineering student to develop a simple, one-way radio transmission device. It is this device, that was later fitted to patrol cars in 1928 which is believed to be the earliest recorded example of a pager style system.

After this, it was over 20 years before the pager’s history took another significant step. In 1949, Al Gross - a pioneer in wireless communications, filed a patent for a pager-esque device which was protested by the medical community. It was, at the time, believed that the noise would disturb patients and distract doctors from their duties. Nevertheless, the system was adopted by New York City’s Jewish Hospital.

But it was not Gross who would thrust the pager into the spotlight - that was done by Motorola, who would go on to dominate the pager market for the years to come. Over the course of the 1970s, Motorola released a number of increasingly sophisticated devices, including: single tone, multi-tone and voice enabled systems. As these developments were released, pagers became increasingly entrenched in the medical field and found an audience which required reliable, critical communication capabilities.

Pagers in the Public Eye

Two major breakthroughs in the 1980s were largely responsible for catapulting pagers into the public eye. The first was the introduction of wide-area paging networks. This allowed messages to be transmitted via radio waves across countries - making the entire system more commercially attractive. Before this, short range networks were limited to a maximum distance of 25 miles, limiting their use to campus and inner city communication.

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"Long range networks propelled pagers to an success - with over 61 million users worldwide."

The second was the invention of alphanumeric devices which could convey significantly more information than their predecessors. Screens were able to display text based messages from operators, such as a particular number to call or location to report to.

Combined with the introduction of two-way pagers by BlackBerry that incorporated a keyboard to allow recipients to respond, these devices reached the height of their popularity in the mid 1990s. In 1994, there were approximately 61 million pagers in use around the world. Though the market was becoming more crowded, Motorola still dominated - with pagers accounting for a $2 billion contribution to the company’s top line.

Mobile Phones vs Pagers

Though mobile phones had existed since the early 1970s, it wasn’t until the late 1990s that they began to drop sharply in price. Falling prices, along with increased portability and data transfer speeds soon led mobiles to become the device of choice among all age groups.

By 2001, 3G internet was commercially launched - offering even faster internet speeds. It was also during this time that many of the dominant pager providers - including Motorola - began to exit the market. There was no denying that the mobile phone was fast becoming a superior communication system. Pagers simply could not compete.

Over the next 10 years, a number of companies either merged or axed their pager offering, leading to a market which dwindled. However, far from disappearing completely - pagers found new life as important components of critical communication strategies.

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"Between 2001 - 2010, pagers moved from a mass market to a healthcare & critical comms market."

Search and rescue organisations, hospitals and emergency services still had a huge need for reliable systems that would deliver messages regardless of internet of telephone network connectivity. Further, many invested in dedicated localised radio transmitters to ensure that messages were received by staff regardless of on-site location.

However, the proliferation of mobile & smartphones could not be stopped. Today, only two companies provide pager networks across the UK: Vodafone & PageOne. Additionally, most staff who carry a pager are also equipped with a mobile device for non-critical communication, data gathering and access to other resources.

The Future of Paging

There will soon only be one network left in the UK - after Vodafone announced that it would be closing its pager services by March 2018, citing ‘ageing technology’ as the driving force. So, where does this leave those organisations that rely on paging to relay vital information to field & clinical staff?

We believe such organisations have a choice. Either continue to use pagers until their impending death, or take the opportunity to seek alternative solutions. CommonTime have developed an Intelligent Paging system which utilises smartphones to perform traditional paging functions.

Expected features such as secure messaging,  persistent notifications and voice recording are complemented by the additional benefits that a smartphone based system can provide. Examples include: message tracking, image/ document attachments, configurable response options and auditable reporting.

While pagers themselves may not survive the turn of the next decade, the processes and workflows that they have carved almost certainly will. There will always be a need for a robust communication system that is underpinned by reliability, speed and governance oversight. It is these processes that our Intelligent Paging solution is designed to fit; providing the benefits that pager devices offered, with additional features that can be used to improve workflows.

Find out more about Intelligent Paging from CommonTime - download the clinical & enterprise communications brochure today.

Intelligent Clinical Communications

Posted by Chris Martin

Chris is a digital marketer who strongly believes in the power of creating memorable customer experiences. He proactively drives digital strategy and content production at CommonTime.