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Beep No More: Japan Ends Pager Services Once and For All

For you millennials, remember the episode of Friends, “The One With the Ick Factor,” where Ross got a beeper so his ex-wife Carol could page him when she goes into labor?

Before smartphones became an everyday luxury for professionals and young adults across the world, beepers were the most tech-reliable way to contact someone while on the go.

Half a century after their debut, Japan’s pager services will finally cease to exist on Tuesday, bringing an end to the pager-era. Tokyo Telemessage Inc., the nation’s sole remaining pager provider, said it would begin shutting down radio signals behind its services at around midnight Monday. Fifty years is a long time where the pager became a cultural mainstay.

What The Hell Is a “Pager?”

Source: BuzzFeed

To most millennials, we may have been accustomed to seeing our parents walk around with these when we were younger. Growing up, I remember my fascination and obsession with my dad’s beeper as he was getting ready for work. What a cool device that clips to your belt, has a screen, and tells you when the world needs you.

According to Urban Dictionary, a “beeper” or pagers, were primitive devices that allowed one to receive a call and be notified that someone was trying to reach them. The beeper would display the phone number that the person trying to reach you wanted to be called back at.

United States and Motorola

The first pager-like system was put into use by the Detroit Police Department in 1921, but it wasn’t until 1949 that the first telephone pager was patented by Alfred J. Gross, and the first practical use of them was launched in 1950 for physicians in the New York City area.

The U.S. paging industry generated $2.1 billion in revenue in 2008, down from $6.2 in 2003. In Canada, over 161,000 Canadians paid $18.5 million for pager service in 2013. Telus, one of the three major mobile carriers, announced the end to its Canadian pager service as of March 2015, while its rivals, Bell, Rogers, and PageNet intend to continue the service.

In 1959, Motorola produced their own product which they called “the pager,” which was half the size of a deck of cards, containing a small receiver that delivered a radio message individually to those carrying the device. The first successful consumer pager was Motorola’s Pageboy I, first introduced in 1964. There was no display screen and could not store messages, but it was portable and notified the user by the tone what action they should take.

Around 1980, there were 3.2 million pager users, thanks to Motorola.

Japan’s Pager Network

Tokyo Telemessage Inc. is the nation’s sole remaining pager provider, which has now ended its pager service for the entire nation of Japan. The telecommunications company last manufactured a device more than 20 years ago.

Initially in Japan, pager services were used by companies to communicate with sales staff who were out of the office. But from the late 1980’s onward, their popularity grew because they could be used to display short messages by creatively combining numbers and text characters.

In recent years, these tiny beeper devices have been favored mainly by those working in hospitals, where cell phone use was once discouraged because of concerns about poor reception and the disruptive effect the electromagnetic waves can have on medical devices.

In the 1990’s, female high school students drove the pager boom further, having discovered a clever way to come up with new avenues by which to exchange messages. By the end of 1996, there were over 10 million pager users, but that number began to decline as mobile phone services began to arrive.

From the late 80s, the popularity of pagers spiked after users began sending “short messages by creatively combining numbers and text characters”. According to Japan Times, the device became a staple of the country’s 90s culture, prominently featuring in TV series, movies and music videos. The “pager boom” was further driven by female high school students who “came up with clever combinations to exchange messages”.

The newspaper said:

“Among the short numerical messages were “33414,” which in Japanese can be pronounced “samishiiyo,” meaning “I’m lonely.” Another was “999,” a series of three (san) nines (kyū) that was a casual way to say “sankyū” (“thank you”).”

A report from March 1997 says that beepers “are evolving from chatting tools for teenagers into handy, inexpensive terminal devices for up-to-the-minute information”. The NTT, which was the leading paging service company at the time, began sending news updates and other information free of charge that year.

The sale of these beepers, or pokeberu (pocket bells), as they’re known in Japan, began in 1968 with the predecessor of NTT Corp. To reach someone, callers would have to dial a pager number from a landline, causing the device to beep to notify the owner.

Japan has indicated that it intends to start a new radio service on the frequencies used by the devices for disaster response and relief services.