Martin Cooper: But, Is It Useful?

Oct. 20, 2003
Cooper (2003)

"Technology," Martin Cooper believes, "is only technology if it does something useful for society. It's important to create science and develop products, but sooner or later you will be involved in the creation of technology. Remember then, you have to make someone's life better." And that is exactly what Cooper's goal was when he conceived the first portable cellular phone in 1973, and then led the 10-year process of bringing it to market at Motorola.

"The development of the cell phone had a bigger objective than wireless telepathy via a car phone," remembers Cooper. "I was working at Motorola, deeply involved in personal communications, when AT&T announced they had a solution called a cellular phone for personal communications. It had two attributes that were totally abhorrent to us: One that AT&T would operate a new cellular service as a monopoly; the other that the solution was car telephones. We had to prove to the world that both of these attributes were not in the public interest. We did it by creating a working cellular phone that was a personal phone, not a phone wired to a car. A personal phone is part of you."

"We had a team of extraordinary people in a bunch of technical areas: industrial design, low-drain semiconductors, antennas, batteries, and miniaturization. It took a lot of very smart people to do all that," says Cooper.

The battle to give society a truly useful cell phone isn't over yet, says Cooper. While this year the number of wireless users equaled wired subscribers, Cooper says two factors hold back greater usage: it costs more than a land line and wireless is not as reliable. "That's why we're talking for this interview on wired lines," he notes. "It is a major challenge for industry to get costs lowered and increase reliability of cellular. We subscribers have been asked to accept lower levels of quality and high costs and this is not right."

Cooper spent 29 years with Motorola building and managing its paging and cellular business. Afterward, he co-founded Cellular Business Systems, then in 1992 founded ArrayComm, a world leader in smart antenna technology. Looking back over his wireless communications career, Cooper says the best advice he ever got was, "In your business dealings and career, seek to be objective. Take yourself out of the equation. Personally based decisions are usually wrong. One's biggest challenge is to seek objectivity."

What advice would he give someone just entering the job market? "Get involved in a situation where you can live through an entire program. If you can be involved in a program from conception to when a product ships and even afterward when customers have it, then you will really understand the entire process. That experience will stand you in good stead throughout your career." According to Cooper, an engineer only knows his technology is useful when "the product is in a customer's hands and he says 'my life is better because I've availed myself of this technology.'"

Cooper is still busy making people's lives better. Today he's working on adaptive array technology, or smart antennas. "We have clearly demonstrated that you can literally multiply the capacity of the number of people served from five to 50 times by using smart antennas in the basestations, yet it is only widely used in Asia and the Middle East." ArrayComm, which he leads, has installed 50,000 basestations there.

The genius behind Cooper's Law believes the government could financially benefit from it. The law says that our ability to extract value out of the radio spectrum doubled every 2.5 years in the last 100 years. "We are squandering a valuable, natural resource—the RF spectrum—when we sell it at a fixed price. It appreciates in value as we create new technology, yet whoever owns the spectrum has no incentive to avail themselves of increased productivity because they already own it. If government managed the spectrum properly, it would get some value out of the spectrum's increasing value, and that would motivate users to use the latest technology."

When not coming up with new wireless ideas, this septuagenarian keeps his mind active with New York Times crossword puzzles and he keeps his body active with running, skiing in Vail, and mountain biking. Cooper is a definite believer that "the way to stay young is to exercise both your mind and body." Now, Martin, how about reducing those cell-phone costs?

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