Steve Wildstrom talks to Martin Cooper about the first cell phone and the evolution of the wireless industry.December 05, 2012
On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper made history when he made a phone call standing in front of the New York Hilton on Sixth Avenue to the head of research at Bell Labs at a press conference inside the hotel. That first cell phone call set off a mobile communications revolution and earned Cooper the title of father of the mobile phone.
Through a long career at Motorola, Cooper worked on a number of groundbreaking projects, including the first handheld portable police radios and pager networks. But his most famous contribution remains the 2.2-lb. DynaTAC handset, the ancestor of all of today's iPhones and Androids.
At 83, Cooper remains involved in the wireless industry and serves as a member of the Federal Communications Commission's Technical Advisory Council.
Steve Wildstrom sat down for a chat with Cooper on October 10, 2012 at his office in Solana Beach, CA. Here is a transcript of that conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Steve Wildstrom: If we go back to 1973 or so, and from that perspective looking to now, what has surprised you the most about the way mobile has developed?
Martin Cooper: The thing that has surprised me most about what has happened with the cell phone, starting in 1973 when we created the first cell phone, until now, is how many additional things have been piled into a cell phone and how essentially useless they are. Now that sounds kind of surprising because I do use a smartphone and I find some of the features interesting. But for the most part, almost everything that they have put onto a smartphone you can do elsewhere in a much more effective way. You can take better pictures with a separate camera. You can send your email and read it more conveniently on a computer. You can text. The only real advantage is the fact that you only have to carry one thing with you.
The real revolution in cell phones happened with the introduction of a phone where you could talk to other people and perhaps text as well. All these other things turn out to be conveniences but not nearly as revolutionary as just connecting people.
SW: The interesting thing is that voice use starting to—I don't know if it is actually declining but in developing markets it certainly has stopped growing.
MC: There are today somewhere between 5 and 6 billion cell phones in use and most of them are not smartphones. In developed countries we're up to maybe 40% penetration, so most people are still talking a lot.
I shouldn't extrapolate my experience to other people, but I find the most useful thing I do on a cell phone is talk. But I agree that the real growth area is in data and I think that is going to continue growing.
SW: It must be very hard to imagine—I see the DynaTAC (is on the shelf behind you—40 or 45 years ago to see what these things were going to evolve into.
MC: If you think about it, in 1973, when we made the first cell phone call, there were no digital personal computers. There were no digital cameras. The internet didn't exist in any form at all. In fact, there were no large-scale integrated circuits. None of the things that are in a smartphone today could have even been envisioned in 1973 and I hate to say it but we didn't expect that to happen.
SW: I'm always suspicious of people who say they envisioned everything that happened…
MC: We thought about things like talking to other people, obviously, when we were on the move. And of course the extrapolation of that is video conferencing. So the thought of having a video conference, and perhaps even with a wrist radio—remember Dick Tracy was around then—those things were pretty obvious to us. But not having large computers and digital cameras and the internet is one of the wonders of modern times. We couldn't have envisioned that.
SW: Who came up with the cell concept?
MC: Ah, that was Bell Laboratories. The idea of having a cell system occurred back in 1946 or 1947. A fellow named Reid at Bell Labs wrote a memo and suggested this might be a way of doing mobile communications in the future. The most significant work, the most significant patent for the cell system was by a fellow named Amos Joel at Bell Laboratories. But I also have a patent on a cellular type of system, and mine was focused specifically on portable communications. But the invention of cellular, the cellular concept, was a Bell Labs concept.
SW: Who came up with the handoff?
MC: I suspect it was Amos Joel, but certainly it was Bell Labs. The nature of what cellular telephony is, is just two things. It is reuse, which means lots of cells in the city, so you can use one frequency in one part of a city and the same frequency in another part so you get much better use of the spectrum. And it's handoff, the ability to move from one cell to another, seamlessly, in a conversation. Those concepts were Bell Laboratories'.
SW: You had been working on other forms of mobile communications in the 60s and 70s, two-way radios and those horrible…I'm one of the few people who ever used one of those old horrible car phones.
MC: My entire career at Motorola was in mobile telephony, two-way radio. I introduced the first pagers, I introduced the first nationwide car phone, and as you suggest, Steve, it was a pretty bad experience. That car phone had 12 channels, which was a lot at that time.
SW: But that meant 12 phone calls in the coverage area.
MC: You'd have one station in a city and you could conduct in that city 12 phone calls at one time. During the busy hour, the probability of connecting, of getting a dial tone, was about 10%. Of course, the reason was a city with 12 channels could support perhaps 50 people with reasonable service. They put 1,000 people on it. So the service was abominable.
SW: Pagers still exist, but barely. You rarely see one…you do occasionally see one.
MC: Pagers, when they were introduced, were revolutionary to a lot of people. They became essential to doctors, as an example. They changed their lives. But today you could do anything a pager does only a lot better with a cell phone. And the cell phones are actually not much bigger than a pager was.
SW: Cellphones generally still don't give as good in-building coverage as pagers did, mainly because pager networks were operating at very low frequencies.
MC: I hope that cellular service is getting better.
SW: It's getting better, although there are still problems with in-building coverage.
MC: It's kind of an anomaly that if you think about it, most of our cellular conversations are in buildings and in offices, because that's where we spend most of our time. But all the stations that provide services, almost all of them are outside. It's kind of backwards. At some point that's going to change. There are things called femtocells and microcells that are actually going to be in the building. So we're going to have a combination of what we call macro cells, the big ones that we have today, and microcells and femtocells inside.
SW: You see that now in very high usage places, some airports are using internal cells to boost coverage.
MC: Some countries are actually doing much better than we are. I was in Singapore some time ago, and they have many buildings in Singapore where all the services are inside. As you looked in the building, you could see repeaters throughout the buildings. In very dense areas, that's a very good way to get cellular service and it makes it very, very reliable.
SW: That sort of takes me to where I wanted to go in the future. One of the big issues that we face today, and I know you are very involved in it through the [FCC] Technical Advisory Council, is where are we going to get enough spectrum, or how are we going to use spectrum efficiently enough, to support all the data we want to use wirelessly. What do you see as the most promising routes?
MC: I can tell you that the way not to create more spectrum is to redistribute it. And that is what the government is proposing to do now, take it away from some people and give it to others. That's not going to do it. There is, perhaps, a total of about 250 MHz of spectrum applied to cellular service today. The requirement in the future, when all of these new services come into being, machine-to-machine, which will involve health care and people and you really start penetrating because the real penetration of smartphones is not all that great today. Perhaps 40% of the population has smartphones, but they don't use them all that much. But when they start using video, when you start transmitting your body functions to computers, we're going to need capacity of perhaps 20 to 40 times what we have today and the predictions are that that's going to happen in as little as five years. So how are you going to fix a problem of 20 to 40 times more spectrum by doubling the amount of spectrum, if you ever could steal it away from other people.
Well, the solution to that is technology. We have been doubling the capacity, the ability to pump information through a given amount of radio spectrum, every 2½ years for the past 40 years. For the last hundred years, we have been doubling the throughput, the number of bits you can put through a limited amount of spectrum every 2½ years for over 100 years, since Marconi did the first trans-Atlantic wireless transmission. That comes out to, like, 10 trillion times improvement in capacity.
SW: So you sound pretty optimistic about the future.
MC: I am. I know that all of these things are going to happen in the future. We are going to revolutionize health care using wireless and other things, but wireless is going to be key. We're going to revolutionize education because right now—look at all the kids who are sitting there looking at their devices, whether they are cell phones or iPads or iPods. Somehow, that is they way people are going to be educated in the future. They're going to be learning when they travel around and they're going to go to school only to interact with teachers to learn how to learn, how to use these tools. So we are going to do a flip, they call it the education flip. That's going to make people smarter, more educated. We're going to revolutionize the whole concept of commerce. The idea of a credit card—if you are carrying a cell phone, why would you need multiple credit cards?
You put all of these things together and add to that the concept of collaboration. The things we are playing with now, they're just toys—Twitter, LinkedIn, all of these social networking things. When they start becoming a fundamental part of our lives we will revolutionize, make more efficient, virtually everything we do. And what's the result of all that? We're finally going to solve the problem of poverty in the world. Redistributing wealth is not going to solve that problem, it's going to make us all poorer. But if we can get more efficient in everything we do, and collaboration is going to do that, and wireless is a fundamental part of collaboration.
When we get those efficiencies in place, we have the opportunity—it's going to take a long time—to eradicate poverty from this planet. It's not going to happen in my lifetime, but all we have to do is understand what the essence of that is and sooner or later it will happen, if we don't eradicate ourselves first.
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