Dr. Martin Cooper: The father of the mobile phone weighs in on the state of the wireless industry

image_galleryI’ve just attended the keynote address given by Dr. Martin Cooper. Never heard of him? You know him indirectly, as he’s the inventor of something most everyone uses every day: the mobile phone.

At the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston, Cooper presented an interesting look at the current state of the wireless industry, identifying a handful of problems and how he thinks they could be fixed.

First, a brief overview of the presentation:

Whatever Happened to Personal Broadband Wireless?

Presented by:

Dr. Martin Cooper, Executive Chairman and Founder of ArrayComm

Ever since the transition from analog to digital cellular that started 12 years ago, the public has been tantalized with the promise of a plethora of revolutionary applications energized by broadband digital transmission to the person. And yet, the vast majority of communications today remains voice. The only widespread digital application is SMS (short-message-service). A tiny segment of the world’s population uses personal devices for e-mail and an even smaller segment downloads and executes some of the tens of thousands of applications that are available. Martin Cooper will discuss the reasons for this apparent failure and the potential for a true revolution based upon new technology, new operator practices and new market attitudes.

And now on to the presentation itself…

Dr. Cooper’s basic thesis is that the wireless industry operates mostly illogically, thanks to an entrenchment in old, lingering landline ideals and the “walled garden” approach of carrier and device non-interoperability.

He cites five main problems with the wireless industry in general.

1. Most cell phone conversations are held indoors, yet all the base stations and towers are located outdoors.

2. The Internet proved that an open network will invite a myriad of applications to serve the needs of just about everyone, yet the wireless industry still clings to the “walled garden” idea of closed networks and development.

3. The idea behind efficient wireless signal transmission is to deliver radio frequency energy to specific individuals at the time each individual’s device needs to transmit or receive information, yet wireless signals are constantly broadcast every which way, in all directions, which is a really inefficient way to connect.

4. Phones are primarily used (70% of the time) to talk and listen, secondarily for text messages (which use small bandwidth), and tertiary for e-mail (which uses small to medium bandwidth), yet we, as consumers, get constantly bombarded with marketing for expensive high speed data services that people don’t use all that often.

5. When purchasing devices, consumers are persuaded that they are getting something for nothing and then urged to throw their old devices away.

Cooper then offered some solutions.

Solution: Femtocells

Dr. Cooper is a big proponent of femtocells, which basically act kind of like access points to serve a specific, limited area. So you’d have a femtocell in your house that would serve your mobile devices, and your office would have another, likely larger femtocell base station to serve everyone there.

Cooper should be a big proponent of femtocells — his company, ArrayComm, is “the world leader in multi-antenna signal processing” with about 300,000 base stations operating in 17 countries.

Solution: Open networks, unlocked phones, stuff like Android

Cooper believes that Android must be partnered with an open network. The carrier has to cooperate. It’s not so much Android, it’s that one carrier has bought into the platform. The real obstacle: You build an app that works on whatever platform and it still uses up time and bandwidth. As long as the carriers keep charging for time and bandwidth, truly great applications might never get built. It’s got to be affordable.

Still, he believes Android to be a big step in the right direction. It’s just getting the carriers to stop doing things like limiting bandwidth and buying up huge swaths of frequencies on which to build their own closed networks. “You don’t overturn 100+ years of walled garden culture instantly,” said Cooper. He believes every big change takes about a generation – roughly 20 years – and that change is coming.

Solution: Smart antennas (adaptive array technology)

Similar to the femtocell argument but with more emphasis on the software aspect. The idea is to use an array of antennas to transmit only to those antennas that are listening. It’s more efficient and costs less. Cooper believes that there’s no reason to have next-gen wireless networks until you get increased efficiency and lower costs. The economics of bandwidth need to come into line in order for things to truly take off.

Solution: Convergence devices don’t make sense. Carrying several highly-optimized devices is a better solution. For example, Cooper uses a Jitterbug phone – a Jitterbug! It’s marketed towards seniors and is widely believed to be one of the easiest cell phones on the market to use. It’s got big keys, no menus, and serves the single purpose of making and receiving phone calls.

I don’t necessarily agree with the convergence-devices-are-bad argument but Cooper’s point was that there are several devices that perform singular functions far better than those functions are performed when they all get crammed into one single do-it-all device. He cited things like cameras and surfing the web on a full computer.

Solution: The Second Wireless Revolution

Cooper referred to “The Second Wireless Revolution,” which he believes isn’t too far off but still will take some time to develop – mostly on the part of the carriers. This new revolution will include truly low cost data delivery, true open access, and will redefine the idea of the mobile “handset” as we think of it today. The dream has always been for affordable, ubiquitous wireless for everyone and Cooper believes that this is still a promise that just hasn’t been fulfilled yet.

In most other industries, according to Cooper, companies come up with products that are supposed to better serve customers. The wireless industry, on the other hand, decides what the consumer wants and builds systems to best serve the interests of the industry. The big goal has been to reduce the cost of delivery, which isn’t a bad thing because it eventually can lower costs to consumers, but they’ve done this to the point of reducing reliability and at the expense of other features.

We (regular people) care about reliability. Operators are getting closer — Cooper cites Verizon’s “Can you hear me now?” ad campaign as an acknowledgement that customers crave reliability — but they’re still not great at understanding (or caring) what real people want. Open networks would solve that problem by filling demand for certain features as solutions would come from everyday users.

Dr. Cooper’s final comment was that “the best technology is invisible” – it’d be nice to do away with gigantic user manuals by making devices much more intuitive. He cited the car transmission as a good example of transparent technology. It’s an exceedingly complex piece of machinery that can be operated with a single lever. You can rent a car in any country, hop in,
and know how to drive it. The same can’t be said for most technology devices, especially when the average consumer tries to use them.