Origins of Telecommunications: The Role of Microwave Communications

Microwave tower communicationConveniences such as telephones, electricity, and microwave ovens have changed how we communicate, live and work, and even cook our meals. While we’re all familiar with the household microwave, did you know that microwave technology is commonly used in telecommunications? It’s not just for cooking food!

Microwave communications began to be developed in the 1940s by Western Union as a means of wireless data communication, much like radio communications. In fact, radio waves and microwaves are neighbors on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Western Union had already been in the business of sending telegrams across wires and later, wirelessly over radio waves. For example, in 1904, its technology could send two telegrams simultaneously on one wire; by 1914, capacity increased to the sending of 8 telegrams simultaneously on a single wire; by 1944, that capacity had increased to 288 telegrams on two wires. Sending signals over radio waves and microwave towers, 2000 telegrams could be sent simultaneously.

Western Union’s first experimental microwave relay system was authorized by the FCC in March 1945 between New York City and Philadelphia. It consisted of a series of terminals and relay stations.

Microwave signals can be blocked by obstacles, so a series of tall towers within line-of-sight from one to the next is required to ensure messages reach their intended destination.

Western Union wasn’t the only company to work on microwave communications, but it was definitely one of the early entrants. Other companies experimenting with microwave communication included Philco, Raytheon, AT&T, and IBM / GE.

Just as Apple, Google, and Samsung often get into patent and intellectual property disputes with one another, these early telecom companies had their share of battles including disputes over FCC’s microwave frequency allocations, licensing, and transmission tariffs.

Today, microwave communication is still commonly used by several industries particularly in rural, mountainous areas or countries where establishing physical lines is difficult and cost-prohibitive. Microwave towers can transmit data over long distances without wires, making this technology attractive to telecommunications services providers, power utilities, and public safety agencies.

In the telecommunications sector, microwave is used to transmit wireless and landline communications alike as well as Internet data. Broadcasters also use microwave communications for video and radio transmissions.

As with the evolution of other telecommunications technologies, microwave communications technology has moved into the digital era. Digital microwave systems tend to have more reliable, advanced technologies with modern protocols and higher bandwidth.

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“Microwave Communication – Towers and Remote Monitoring.” n.d. Accessed November 23, 2017.

“Patent US2705752 – Microwave Communication System – Google Patents.” n.d. Accessed November 23, 2017.

“The Economics of Innovation in the Telecommunications Industry – John R. McNamara – Google Books.” n.d. Accessed November 23, 2017.

“Western Union Microwave Network Survey | History Sidebar.” n.d. Accessed November 23, 2017.

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