…There was no VympelCom, no Euronet, we didn’t even have a license. We had discussions with Fabela and several Russian organizations about importing some Plexsys equipment, installing it in the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry, plugging it into the ATS-244 (Automated Telephone Network) and ATS S12 at the Kombelga company, and creating an experimental show-case area for cellular communications. You can be sure that the numbers in our network that start with 244 are the oldest ones.
Here’s one of the few surviving documents from that time – a permit issued by GIE (acronym for the State Electro-Communications Inspectorate) to import equipment: one base station and a hundred telephones. Why on earth would this paper speak about the non-existent “Cellular equipment” – I can’t even remember now. It is some kind of metastasis of our first meeting with our first American cell phone company. One detail attracts attention: the letterhead has the seal and name of the already extinct USSR.
July 12, 1992 – the first ring!!!
It was the beginning of the first ever experimental network using the AMPS standard in Europe and Russia.
I have the account of one of the participants of these events, Valery Trepakov. At the time, he had been working for a relatively short period, first in my department at RTI, and then at Euronet. Here are several passages from his memoir:
For approximately two weeks after the installation of the station we couldn’t solve the problem of compatibility between the digital cellular switching system and the city’s ATS, which at the time were at best analog, or quasi-digital (there was such a term!). I remember at the end of 1991, when American specialists from Cellular, Inc. visited a number of our ATS’; they were dumbfounded: “How can this work?”…
The main problem was that the timing characteristics (the duration of the dialing and calling impulses) of our ATS differed from international standards. At the end of June, 1992 Alexander Bashmakov, the director of the MOFA ATS, shared all the signal data from MOFA’a ATS 244 at the Miussky relay station with Jim Davis, the chief engineer at Plexsys (this talented engineer along with his team subsequently left Plexsys, and founded the company CellCore), along with Vladimir Volynsky, who worked in Zimin’s department and was, in my opinion, one of the best hackers of his time.
Two weeks later the American team again returned to Moscow. Volodya Volynsky had cracked the American code between the mobile commutator and the “external world.” He wrote what he thought was the right program into the memory chip, and wrapped the microchip in silver foil, like a piece of candy.
And finally July 12, 1992 was upon us…”
The project directors and technical teams from both sides meet in the ATS 244 machine room inside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Smolenskaya Square. Others also present:
- Dmitry Zimin (RTI, USSR)
- Edward Saad (Free World Corporation, USA)
- Jim Davis (Chief Engineer, Plexsys, USA)
- Masha Davis (Jim Davis’ wife)
- Vladimir Volynsky (RTI, USSR)
- Valery Novozhenin (RTI, USSR)
- Victor Maneshin (RTI, USSR)
- Valery Trepakov (RTI, USSR)
- Alexander Bashmakov (RTI, USSR)
- Alexander Vinogradov (MOFA, USSR)”
Volodya Volynsky comes up to Jim, offers him his “candy” and says: “Try this; IT might help.”
Jim asks me: “Who is this and what is he trying to give me?”
I answer: “This is the best computer hacker at RTI and he just cracked your commutator program. This is his solution to the problem.”
Jim: “With all due respect to Russian specialists, I’m no dufus myself!” (Sorry, this is a euphemistic translation of what this gentleman from the American South said). After turning the “candy” every which way in his hands, Jim put it down on a desk in front of a computer and pronounced: “Let them all fuck off. All of them… Keep your mobile on. I’ll call you.”
We all left the machine room, only partially complying with the order “to fuck off”. Many wanted to stay. In the ATS corridor, where Jim’s wife cozied up on a short couch, we chain-smoked, defying the smoking ban, while Jim practiced his sorcery at the computer for a good one-and-a-half hours. Dmitry Borisovich Zimin was asking every five minutes where he could get a sip of coffee, but would immediately dismiss it with a wave of a hand – “the hack with coffee!” – and with shaking hands would light yet another cigarette from the old one, burned only half-way.”
…Suddenly the cell phone in my hand rang – it was a Motorola-Classic, nicknamed the “brick” in the U.S. (very reliable, you could hammer nails with it, but it wouldn’t fit into a jacket pocket). I hit SEND and when I heard Jim Davis’s voice, asked him how it was going. He answered that he was calling not from his cell phone, but from a city phone next to the computer. “You mean, I could call someone in town too?” – “Try,” said Jim. I dialed Mom’s number.
Maybe I remember this day down to the last detail because on this day and at this very hour my father died… and on this day and at this hour Bee Line was born. And the Motorola with the number 244-4008 now occupies a place of honor in my office.”
It was a technical experiment. A person on the street with a ringing telephone in his hands attracted a crowd. “Where did you get this? How can we buy it?” These were, apparently, the first pocket cell phones in Russia.
We gave telephones away for free, with a receit, to some worthy people in the Moscow and Russian governments, who had honored us by agreeing to participate in the technical experiment.
Among these participants were Luzhkov, Yevtushenkov.
I think it was probably Nikolai Vasilyevich Mikhailov, the president of CNPO Vympel who introduced me to Vladimir Petrovich Yevtushenkov (V.P. from now on), at the time a Moscow functionary of medium significance, the head of the Moscow City Committee on Science and Technology (acronym MGKNT).
V.P.’s importance began to grow in direct proportion to the ever-increasing randomness of the payment of our RTI salaries; his hand was on the tap that controlled the trickle of the city budget meant for the development of science, technology and privatization of the military-industrial complex. At the same time he set the cornerstone for the foundation of the future AFK System.
I probably reached the height of my eloquence convincing the management of RTI, Vympel and V.P. that using “privatization” money for purposes other than those of KB Impulse and cellular technology is a sin and a stupidity. Everyone agreed with that under some simple conditions… It is fair to say that our first steps in cellular telecommunications were taken with Augie Fabela’s equipment; the expertise of RTI workshops despite its irregular salaries; and a trickle of contract money from MGKNT to KB Impulse, and later to the newborn VympelCom. By the way, most of this money came in the form of credits, which we duly paid back with accrued interest several years later. One of V.P.’s people later told us that we were virtually the only ones to honor our loan commitments, and then commented on our mental capacity in unflattering terms.
According to the receipts, a copy of one of which I have presented here, the telephones would be issued to Euronet, a company which didn’t exist yet. The equipment was brought to RTI, and then it was supposed to be used to capitalize Euronet. Fabela later reconsidered, and he and the equipment ended up with VympelCom.