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The Royal Society of Edinburgh

Lecture: Reflections on the Amazing Ubiquitous Cellphone

Dr Irwin Jacobs

Monday 1 October 2007

The Call of the Wireless World

Wireless telecoms pioneer Dr Irwin Jacobs was in Edinburgh in early October to receive the IEEE/RSE Wolfson James Clerk Maxwell Award. And as he shared his thoughts on the “amazing and ubiquitous cellphone,” no-one switched off - with the speaker’s blessing…

For a man who retired 22 years ago, Dr Irwin Jacobs has been keeping fairly busy, with a range of impressive endeavours, including the creation of a company called Qualcomm which had revenues of US$7.5 billion last year.

Before he and six other industry veterans set up Qualcomm in 1985, chairman Dr Jacobs worked for Linkabit Corp., but when he sold his interest in the company and sat down to enjoy a life of leisure, the call of the wireless world was simply too loud to resist…

Founded in 1969 by Dr Jacobs and his long-time business partner Dr Andrew Viterbi, Linkabit was one of the stars of the American telecoms industry. It grew from a few dedicated part-timers to more than 1,400 employees by the time it merged with MA-COM and achieved several industry firsts, including the introduction of commercial TDMA (Time Division Multiple Access) wireless phones. In fact, many leading telecoms companies, including Qualcomm, are branches of the Linkabit family tree.

Linkabit was a hard act to follow, but Dr Jacobs and his partners soon put Qualcomm on the map in wireless telecoms by developing a product called OmniTRACS, a satellite-based mobile system for the transportation industry. While the rest of the industry was focusing on TDMA, Qualcomm emerged as the leader in another new technology called CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access) - a way of maximising available bandwidth for data and voice by using different codes for different channels, instead of different frequencies or time slots. With CDMA, the bottom line was high-quality, high-capacity bandwidth for cellular phones, and Qualcomm was the company that proved it was a practical commercial solution by solving the technical problems involved.

Two years after demonstrating CDMA in action, Qualcomm put the complex electronics onto silicon, and two years later the technology became a new industry standard. Then, following successful trials in Hong Kong and Korea, CDMA debuted in the US in November 1995 - a total of seven years from proof of concept to commercially viable product.

According to Dr Jacobs, in the course of such projects, the pace of technological progress is often “amazing.” For example, he said, you can double how much you can put on a chip, roughly every two years. And by the time Qualcomm’s new product was launched, the communications component used only 20 per cent of the chip, enabling the company to add a range of innovative appliances, including powerful computers and digital signal processors, as well as GPS (Global Positioning System) and video coding/decoding devices - on a single chip using one very small battery.

“At this point,” Dr Jacobs said, “we were able to incorporate the same computing power as a super-computer from 10 years before.”

For Dr Jacobs and his industry partners, the explosive growth of the mobile phone market has been nothing less than amazing, and today there are three billion wireless subscribers worldwide, including 500 million using third-generation technology. Annual shipments total roughly one billion cellphones, many of them featuring Qualcomm technology.

Qualcomm’s product portfolio now includes over 6,000 US patents and patent applications for CDMA and related technologies, and its solutions are currently licensed to more than 130 telecoms equipment manufacturers worldwide. And as well as describing the move to new third-generation solutions, Dr Jacobs took his audience on a whirlwind tour of some of the landmarks along the way, reminding everyone how far we have come since the launch of the first mobile ‘brick’ in the late 1980s.

“Technology is moving ahead very fast,” said Dr Jacobs, “but now it’s time to focus on the best uses for the technology.”

The new generation of cellphones packs in much more power and many more features than ever before, including 10-megapixel cameras and the ability to ‘broadcast’ 30-frame-per-second video signals. They are also more intelligent, enabling us to download new applications, including games, financial software, educational programs and medical data.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh - Reflections on the Amazing Ubiquitous Cellphone

Dr Jacobs described how consumers can be tracked to specific locations and receive a message telling them about special offers in nearby shops or restaurants, thanks to GPS systems on chips which ‘know’ where they are.

Other applications include using sensors attached to a cellphone to monitor heart rate or blood sugar levels, combined with GPS to automatically alert the emergency services when there’s a critical problem. Integrated with robotics, doctors can use mobile networks to carry out remote diagnosis and interact with patients on the opposite side of the world, including help with surgery. Dr Jacobs revealed that such techniques have already been used by doctors in America to deal with brain injuries in military hospitals in Germany.

Television is the next frontier for cellphones, said Dr Jacobs, with current networks capable of carrying 25 channels broadcasting multimedia programmes in real time, and up to 100 channels in total.

Wireless technology is also having an increasing impact on life in developing countries, “empowering citizens” in remote areas by providing information on demand such as healthcare advice, financial news so fishermen and farmers can get the best prices for produce, and educational programmes. Qualcomm, Dr Jacobs said, is committed to numerous projects worldwide using ‘Wireless Reach’ in countries such as India, Thailand, Peru and Brazil, so people can “transcend the social and economic challenges they face” in their communities. Closer to home, it is also involved in educational projects, including using wireless to improve the maths skills of students in North Carolina.

In the last 22 years, Dr Jacobs has not only witnessed a revolution in wireless technology - he is one of the people who started it rolling two decades ago and continues to drive it today. Retirement has become a distant memory…

“There are lots of possibilities,” concluded Dr Jacobs, “and more fun to come in the decades ahead.”

Peter Barr

Opinions expressed in this report do not necessarily represent those of The Royal Society of Edinburgh, nor its Fellows