Skip to Content

"Everyone Is Wrong"

The inventor of the portable cell phone didn’t carry one until they slimmed down to 100 grams. Then again, he’s a rebel in almost every way.

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.

TR:  Yet there seem to be a lot of new and creative wireless services springing up, particularly in Europe and Japan.
Cooper: That’s a myth. Europe and Japan seem to be ahead of the United States in some ways just now because they’ve rammed through some standards. In Europe the big phone companies got together and developed a standard by committee. That’s just not the way to win, ultimately. In the U.S. we have four standards, maybe more. Guess who will choose which will win? The people. The market. In the long run the U.S. will have a much more effective telecommunications industry because of it.

TR: What is your vision for how wireless data networks will evolve?

Cooper: The real question is, how is this industry going to evolve into a healthy competitive situation, when today it’s so mired in monopolistic thinking? We’re very fortunate that the Internet has come along. The Internet is full of people trying to figure out what customers want. The Internet is going to force the telecommunications industry to wake up.

TR: How will the Internet force the telecommunications industry to change?
Cooper: What you have now in the cellular market is a lot of carriers going after markets that generate the most revenue and ignoring everyone else. The whole focus is on people who use a lot of minutes. So what happens to old people? To teenagers? To police departments? To all the billions of people in the world who don’t fit the profile?

But the Internet creates a situation where an aggressive company can attack a very small market and make a business out of it. It will engender a bunch of different applications and markets. Some people will be good at managing customers and delivering value. Others will be great at building the pipes, the bits and bytes that make this stuff work.

TR: Yet big companies have a huge edge over newer players in spectrum auctions.
Cooper: Well, that’s right. Governments have been auctioning spectrum off to the highest bidder, which favors established players, not risk-takers. We’re on a campaign to persuade the FCCs of the world to make some provision for innovation, and for services not provided by these behemoth organizations. We’re having some success. It turns out that the FCCs of the world really are trying to use spectrum in the best way to serve people. Our market trial [in San Diego] will be important to establish just what we have to offer. Spectrum is essential to what we’re trying to do. It’s a good thing that our particular technology doesn’t need much

TR:  Tell me a little bit about what you see people doing with wireless networks. Will it be an extension of what we’re doing already on our desktops, or will we be doing new things in new ways?
Cooper: First you have to get rid of the idea we’ll be accessing the Internet via cell phone. The laughable part of that idea is, here we have this huge power in the Internet, and we’ve only tasted a shadow of it, and yet people insist it will be delivered to us over the cell phone. No. My vision is that you deliver the real, full Internet to people wherever they are. You’re not tied to a desk. You don’t need to be computer literate or know how to find an ISP or a portal or whatever. It has to be wireless, and it has to be ubiquitous, so wherever you happen to travel, it’s there. It has to be available when you need it. No nonsense about dialing in. And it has to be low in cost.

Once all those things are in place, remarkable things can happen. We’ll take a picture with the push of a button, and in seconds it will appear on our Web site for our friends and family to enjoy. Or say you want to hear a John Denver song. You can tell how old I am by my example. You’ll download a five-minute song in 20 seconds directly to a device that plays the song. That will happen. Or games. Imagine a kid in Shanghai and a kid in Cleveland, playing together with absolutely no geopolitical barriers. Someone still has to figure out how to charge you for all these things, but they will.

TR: But no one now is making money even in wired broadband. How will the industry solve its cash flow problems?
Cooper: If you think about it, we have a bunch of problems. The biggest problem is people’s time. It’s a commodity in short supply. People have been bombarded with all these new things. Is there a model that says you can make money through advertising? Sure. Radio and TV work that way. But when everyone jumps on that model at once, it doesn’t work, because people just don’t have the time to pay attention to it all.

But there’s another way to make money, that doesn’t rely on advertising. What if you have something that does useful things for people, that replaces the old way of doing things, and that is more productive and safer and easier than before?

TR:  When do you predict these services will take hold and companies begin to make money?
Cooper: It takes a long time for people to change their habits, which is another reason these businesses are failing. I can’t conceive, myself, of buying groceries over the Internet. My grandchildren will do this stuff without even thinking about it. We’ve been way too impatient with this technology. It takes a long time before something becomes popular. How many years do you think it took from the time the first microwave oven was available until you could be fairly certain your neighbor had one? Nineteen years! Almost every new thing has taken that long. The whole Internet thing is only five years old. People are saying it’s a failure. Wait a second. A lot of things really are going to take a generation. They’re going to take people growing up with this tool.

TR: So we’re not going to really see a broadband revolution until 2014?
Cooper: To really achieve the potential of the Internet, yes. It’s going to take longer than anyone thinks. Of course there will be progress along the way. I’m talking about people being connected to a full Internet, wherever they are, carrying three, four, five different devices, maybe even having a couple of telemedicine sensors connected to two different places monitoring their health. Yes. That will take a generation.

In the interim there will be a lot of stuff in the gadget category. Like personal digital assistants. They still aren’t as convenient as they need to be. I should be able to update the calendar in my PDA and have my computer at home and my secretary’s computer automatically update themselves, without me needing to be in the vicinity to establish an infrared link. It takes a long time to get these human-to-computer interfaces right. People are always saying I invented the cell phone. But I didn’t carry one myself until it got down under four ounces. Before that cell phones just weren’t convenient to me. 

TR:  What keeps you personally fomenting revolution?
Cooper: I guess I must be an optimist. There is no such thing as an easy business, you know. They’re all hard. You need to create a vision, to get people who have money to give it to you, and to overcome all sorts of insurmountable obstacles. They always come and they’re always unforeseeable. If you understand that in the beginning, it helps when you’re in the thick of it.

TR:  If you could pick the one thing everyone has wrong right now in the wireless industry, what would it be?
Cooper: I only get one shot at this? Okay. It’s the concept of universal solutions. In other words, people think you can come up with one universal gadget or system or solution that solves a whole bunch of problems. That if you find the Holy Grail of solutions then everyone will flock to you. In my business right now they’re inventing what they call the “next generation of cellular networks,” and they have the temerity to claim it will do everything. They’re saying, “look, we’re going to combine cell phones and personal digital assistants into one device, because everyone is carrying both of these things already, so obviously we all want one device that does both.” That’s crazy!

TR:  Yet it does seem to be what everyone thinks is going to happen-that people will gravitate toward a handful of devices.
Cooper: Everyone is wrong. People are different. They have different needs. They’ll need different devices to satisfy those needs. I see a proliferation of gadgets, all of which interconnect. Some gadgets will combine, but more will be separate. There won’t be a universal network, either. Some will be optimized for voice. Some will be for international travelers who need to communicate all over the world. Some will just work around the neighborhood. The suggestion that all of us should be served by one solution is just insane. In my world, there will be lots of companies all battling to make you happier, healthier and more prosperous, with the companies themselves getting prosperous in the meantime. It’s going to happen. I guarantee it.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Every year, we look for promising technologies poised to have a real impact on the world. Here are the advances that we think matter most right now.

Scientists are finding signals of long covid in blood. They could lead to new treatments.

Faults in a certain part of the immune system might be at the root of some long covid cases, new research suggests.

AI for everything: 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2024

Generative AI tools like ChatGPT reached mass adoption in record time, and reset the course of an entire industry.

What’s next for AI in 2024

Our writers look at the four hot trends to watch out for this year

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.