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98/80/1 Mobile telephone, 'Opera' digital cellular phone, model CE168X NEC, pvc / metal / glass / electronic components, made by NEC Australia Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1996. Click to enlarge.

'Opera' mobile phone by NEC Australia

The NEC Opera was the first mobile phone designed and made in Australia. Small, light and grey, it's made of plastic with a liquid crystal display. Folding up when not in use is its way of being rugged.

The phone was designed and manufactured in response to the adoption of the digital GSM* standard for mobile communications by some South East Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia). Rapidly industrializing countries in S.E. Asia, Eastern Europe and elsewhere find that it is considerably faster and less costly to construct cellular networks that integrate rather than extend existing wired phone lines.

NEC in Tokyo was unable to respond to the rapid appearance of these new markets - Europe and some Asian countries adopted the digital GSM standard sooner than expected. NEC Australia was in a position to do this - members of the design and development group (61 persons in 1996) at Mulgrave had been working with their UK counterparts on a new mobile phone.

A cellular phone is essentially a two-way radio transceiver that patches into the telephone system via a geographically cellular network of base stations. Rather than communicating directly with another phone handset, it is in contact with the nearest base station, itself a radio transceiver that is directly wired into the plain old telephone system (POTS). The base stations are arranged in a cellular network: as the cellular phone user moves spatially, they cross into a different cell and get handed over to the new base station. This is done in apparent real time, so that the user can continue a call while moving through different cells.

The infrastructure demanded to support mobile phone penetration (geographically and commercially) is large and costly. The erection of transmission towers over densely populated urban zones has impacted upon communities. The towers are veiwed as visual pollution (UGLY) and hazardous (electromagnetic radiation emissions and exposure). The effects of electromagnetic radiation upon users of mobile phones, and passive exposure, are presently the subject of research and controversy.

The initial (1985) consumer base for cellular phones was wealthy people in developed countries. The appeal and use of mobile phones has since (1988) expanded to include executives, trades and small business persons, female family members (marketed with security as the issue), youth markets and new markets in countries without large established infrastructure as mentioned above.

Although the technology is expensive (initial outlay for cellular phone $200-$1,700) and running costs high (average 1997 cost of $800 per user per annum) Australia presently has the highest level of acceptance and use of mobile phones per capita in the world.

Worldwide, Motorola, Ericsson, and Nokia are the dominant cellular phone suppliers, and together they control about 70% of the worldwide market (1997).

*GSM is the acronym for Groupe Special Mobile, a study group formed in 1982 at the Conference of European Posts and Telegraphs (CEPT) to study and develop a pan-European public land mobile system. The proposed system had to meet certain criteria: Good subjective speach quality: Low terminal and service cost: Support for international roaming: Ability to support handheld terminals: Support for range of new services and facilities: Spectral efficiency: ISDN compatibility. In 1989, GSM reponsibility was transferred to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), and phase I of the GSM specifications were published in 1990. Commercial service was started in mid-1991. GSM systems now exist on every continent, and the acronym GSM now stands for Global System for Mobile communications.

Campbell Bickerstaff, April 1998
Assistant Curator, Information Technology


Object No.


Object Statement

Mobile telephone, 'Opera' digital cellular phone, model CE168X NEC, pvc / metal / glass / electronic components, made by NEC Australia Pty Ltd, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 1996

Physical Description

The NEC Opera is a dark grey, molded plastic folding phone. The outside of the casing has an oval recess on the top half designed to fit a "cover plate rear" with the NEC logo. The bottom half has a cavity to accept the power cell (battery); without the battery in place, the power cell contacts, the housing mechanism for a security device and a manufacturer's label are exposed. The label has the following details printed on it:

CE168X NEC Australia Pty. Ltd. MADE IN AUSTRALIA
MP5J1D1-1A IMEI 446669/29/657793/0

Below this a bar code appears.

When unfolded for use the inside of the phone reveals a 4 line, 48 character liquid crystal display, a keypad with number and function keys, and perforations in the housing for audio input and output. Along the top edge in the right hand corner is a black retractable aerial with a bullet-shaped head. 20mm in from the top and bottom edges are magnets under the surface of the casing, to keep the phone together when closed.


On the reverse in the battery cavity is a white printed adhesive label with the following information 'CE168X NEC Australia Pty. Ltd. / MADE IN AUSTRALIA / MP5J1D1-1A IMEI 446669/29/657793/0' followed by a barcode



56 mm


30 mm



The Opera was designed and manufactured in response to the adoption of the digital GSM standard for mobile communications by some Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia). NEC in Tokyo was unable to respond to the rapid appearance of these new markets. NEC Australia was in a position to do this.

Outside the US the cellular infrastructure is rapidly adopting digital protocols as opposed to analogue systems. Digital systems can offer better transmission quality, enhanced service features, and more efficient use of the radio frequency spectrum. Many countries without established land line infrastructures are adopting mobile cellular technologies for cheaper and faster market growth and access.

The NEC Opera's logic circuitry is implemented in just a few integrated circuits. Radio Frequency (RF) components have experienced extensive miniaturisation over the past decade. Further developments of this kind will help to shrink the RF side of wireless communicatons products.

Made in Mulgrave, Melbourne, Australia, 1996.

The NEC Opera is the first mobile phone to be designed, developed and manufactured in Australia.

The manufacture of the NEC Opera employed an innovative "cell manufacturing" process, where a team of four assembled each complete phone (in approximately 30min.) NEC found that this system delivered quality and productivity improvements and enhanced employee satisfaction. This system also permitted production to be boosted by adding cells.

The NEC Australia facility at Mulgrave in Victoria was opened in October 1971. For the first 15 years of its existence, the role of the Mulgrave facility was merely to handle the sales and manufacture of products designed by NEC Japan. Over the past ten years (1986-1997) the centre has acquired the ability to design and develop products of its own.



Donated unused to the museum in 1997.


Credit Line

Gift of ICP Engineering, NEC Australia Pty Ltd, 1998

Acquisition Date

29 May 1998

Cite this Object


'Opera' mobile phone by NEC Australia 2021, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 16 April 2021, <https://ma.as/164564>


{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/164564 |title='Opera' mobile phone by NEC Australia |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=16 April 2021 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}
This object is currently on display in Technology & Innovation at the Museums Discovery Centre.