Marty Cooper literally comes down from the mountaintop for our interview, arriving ten minutes late and a little out of breath after skiing all day at Vail. He apologizes and pulls off a sweater before sitting down. “It was tougher territory than I expected,” he says exuberantly.Mountaintops suit Cooper well-the septuagenarian might well be dubbed the Moses of cellular telephone service. In 1973, while at Motorola, he led the development of the first portable cellular phone. In doing so he delivered the market from AT&T, which had first conceived of cell telephony and had lobbied the Federal Communications Commission for retaining a monopoly in using the technology.
Cooper is no stranger to tough territory, either. His company, ArrayComm, is championing a radically different vision for the future of broadband wireless networks, a vision that flies in the face of the incremental progress being eked out by telephone companies worldwide.
Rather than building on existing cellular networks, Cooper argues, wireless data networks of tomorrow need to have new technology to support them. ArrayComm’s “smart antenna” technology de-ploys proprietary software and antenna arrays that are able to target recipients of transmissions precisely. It can then allocate bandwidth to carry those transmissions between two points, rather than broadcasting signals in every direction, as conventional networks do.
The FCC has granted ArrayComm use of spectrum to conduct a market trial in San Diego later this year. The trial will make use of devices developed by both Sony and ArrayComm to deliver not only telephone service but also Web access.
Down off the mountaintop, Cooper spoke with TR senior editor Claire Tristram about many subjects, including ArrayComm, why there’s hope for the FCC, how many different mobile wireless devices the world has room for, and why competition is critical in the telecommunications industry.
TR: What was it like developing the portable cellular phone?
Cooper: AT&T at the time thought they should have a monopoly on cellular services. We disputed their position that one company should run this business. Also, AT&T’s vision was to make car telephones. People don’t want to talk to cars. They want to talk to people. At Motorola we were working on all sorts of devices, among them a truly portable phone. We went to Washington and did nothing for two weeks but show our phone to anyone who would watch. Then we did a public demonstration in New York, where we put a station up on a building and walked the streets and invited people to try it. That was April 1973. The whole experience led me to understand why competition is so important in the phone business.
TR: Why is competition so important?
Cooper: Because no one company is going to be wise enough to come up with all the answers. Look, for all practical purposes, telecommunications is still a monopoly. Even where it is not, you still get monopolistic thinking. The telephone industry is a hundred and twenty-five years old. Wireless is a hundred and five years old. Instead of saying, “What are the needs of the people?” or “How can we make people’s lives better so they’ll want to pay us?” we get off on these technological tangents full of acronyms, like CDMA [Code Division Multiple Access] and 3G [third-generation wireless] and WAP [Wireless Application Protocol]. Everyone is talking about technology, when what’s important is what people do with technology. Without real competition you don’t have much in the way of creative new services.