An amusing take on the history of cell phone companies

Do you remember your first cell phone? What about the company you wrote the checks to? (For that matter, remember when you used to write checks?) For many folks, their cellular history dates back to sometime in the 1990s when cell phones started to fall under $1,000, and just as the phones themselves would be foreign to today’s smartphone-toters, the companies themselves have all but fallen away as well.

In the 1990s, cellular service was provided by a patchwork of local providers, each covering just one or two areas. Whether it was LA Cellular or CellNYC or anything in between, you often had but one choice in your hometown and if you wanted to use the phone elsewhere you had to be prepared for steep roaming charges.

Things started to coalesce by 2000 when the familiar players were all in place, albeit by different names. Remember Cingular, AirTouch or Voicestream? You might know them today as AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile (respectively.) Those three companies kept swallowing up competitors until they (and Sprint which gobbled up Nextel) were almost the only ones left at the table.

There’s a great article at GigaOM which describes the long battle between carriers and the way it’s all consolidated from around 100 competitors of equal size to just a handful. There’s also one of the world’s longest infographics (reproduced below) that shows the evolution of the top competitors, along with a look at what would have happened if Sprint and T-Mobile had merged. That would have left three companies of relatively equal size battling it out for the vast majority of cell phone users.

To be sure, having these giants control the national cell phone landscape is a benefit in many ways. Roaming charges are all but extinct, and each of these companies is big enough to be able to subsidize your hardware purchase so that you barely pay anything for the latest technology. Still, it reduces the chance that there will be a true market disruptor, a company that so totally rethinks the idea of cell phones that we never look at them the same way again. As each of us looks at the massive bill e-mailed to us before paying it online, it sure would be nice if someone would come around and do a little disrupting.

Oh, yeah, that infographic: