Mobile phone inventor Martin Cooper tells Roger Field about the need for simpler handsets and greater spectral efficiency.
Despite being 80 years old, Martin Cooper, the man widely credited with inventing the mobile phone back in 1973, still feels that he is waiting for the world to catch up with his ideas.
While the former Motorola engineer is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking work on the development of the mobile phone, he has more recently spent much of his time alerting the government and businesses in the US to the growing problem of a severe lack of spectrum for mobile data.
It is a problem that Cooper saw coming back in 1992 when he co-founded ArrayComm, a company that specialises in multi-antenna signal processing - or smart antennas - which allows operators to vastly increase the number of people they can serve with a given amount of radio spectrum.
While Cooper concedes that demand for mobile data grew slower than he expected in recent years, the situation appears to have changed since the launch of the Apple iPhone which led to a spike in the popularity of mobile data.
And amid the growing popularity of touch screen devices, spectrum is becoming increasingly scarce and is even leading to deterioration in services, according to Cooper.
“When it becomes much easier to do things on a cell phone, to get on to the internet, to send video, to stream video, when that happens the demands on the networks will be just huge and there will simply not be enough radio spectrum to accommodate all that,” he says.
“It is going to take at least four or five years to fully implement LTE and meanwhile there are great demands between the iPhone and the Android phones such as the Motorola Droid, and the Nexus which has just been announced.
“Each of those is edging up on this issue of how easy it is to avail yourself of all these services that people have traditionally done on the internet, and my mantra has always been that people are mobile. The natural thing is for people to talk on their cell phones and be free to do other things.”
The demand currently being created by smart phones appears to be the tip of the iceberg, given that the current smart phone penetration is just a fraction of that achieved by 2G devices.
Of the estimated 4 billion cell phones in use around the world, only about 100-150 million are smart phones, according to Cooper. And as that number increases, so too will demand for bandwidth, infrastructure, and new technology.
As a result of this, Cooper says the world has “finally recognised” the need for new technology that boosts the efficiency of networks, such as that provided by ArrayComm.
Cooper sees far more demand for the company’s technology in the coming years, as WiMAX and LTE become more widely deployed, and as people start to use ever greater amounts of mobile data.
He adds that WiMAX and LTE will have “no significance” if operators fail to adopt technology such as smart antennas that allow them to multiply the number of people they can serve on a specific number of radio channels.
But despite the challenge presented by the coming surge of data, Cooper is confident that the problem can be solved. And certainly, one reason for optimism is a law that Cooper postulated some years ago, which states that by using new technology the amount of data carried over a given amount of radio spectrum doubles roughly every two and a half years. He adds that this pattern has held true since Marconi first patented the wireless telegraph in 1897.
“What that means is we are a trillion times more efficient today than when Marconi did his first radio transmissions. We are a million times more efficient than we were in 1950,” he says.
Perhaps even more impressive is Cooper’s belief that “there is every reason that we can keep doing that for another 50 or 60 years.”
“If the operators kept using new technology, they would never need new spectrum. And yet they are still out there drilling for new spectrum and suggesting that is the problem.”
Despite his confidence in technology, Cooper concedes that the biggest part of the spectrum problem is business and government related, rather than technological. “We know the solutions to all these problems. The solutions are much more political and business than they are technical,” he says.
One of the main issues is that governments around the world have encouraged operators to gather more spectrum rather than to adopt technologies that allow them to use their existing spectrum more efficiently. For Cooper, this has simply increased the monopolies that some larger operators enjoy.
“Once you own spectrum, you have in essence a monopoly on that spectrum,” he says. “Rather than using new technology, operators have opted to gather spectrum and increase their market positions, and I don’t think that is a proper use of radio spectrum. Radio spectrum is a public asset.”
While Cooper has become well known for his call to arms on the coming shortage of spectrum, he is also known for his desire to see handsets that are far more user friendly and which make ease of use a priority.
This does not mean handsets that do less, but rather devices that are more intuitive and better tailored to the needs of end users.
“The real problem is making the concept of connecting people much simpler and much more intuitive and natural,” he says. “Instead of trying to tack a huge amount of stuff into a single device and therefore make it very difficult to use, somehow or other the application has to be the prime driver and not the gimmick.
“Every customer does not need a phone that is also an MP3 player, camera and gives web access, TV and so on.
“A really good technology is invisible. You use it and it makes your life better.”
But Cooper’s distaste for gimmicks does not detract from his desire to see mobile devices and wireless technology adapted to offer people new services and tools to improve their lives.
And while he thinks that a new breed of 4G-reliant augmented reality type applications might require a new generation to become popular, he sees more practical applications in areas such as healthcare taking off much sooner.
“Much sooner than augmented reality will be all sorts of health related applications, because there is no unfulfilled need for augmented reality, but we are spending a huge amount of our gross domestic product, particularly in the US, on healthcare.
“There is known technology for preventing disease, and wireless is a fundamental part of that. If you can measure things on your body on a continuing basis and you can predict failures and problems and solve them before they become real problems, we can save billions of dollars in the US alone,” Cooper says.
Asked whether he feels proud at the difference the mobile phone is already making to people’s lives in emerging markets, with innovations such as mobile banking and remittances, Cooper’s response is positive,
“I feel that everywhere in the world, mobile phones are improving people’s productivity, making them safer and I do feel very good about that.
“I feel very good about the potential for adding on to that improvements in healthcare, education and things of that nature, and I don’t feel bad at all when people accuse me of causing traffic accidents and annoying people in theatres when phones ring.”
Keeping it simple
Martin Cooper is also co-founder, along with his wife Arlene Harris, of a company called Greatcall, which offers a mobile service for people traditionally known as technophobes.
The company offers services around the Jitterbug handset, which was invented by Harris, and focuses on ease of use and sound quality.
The phone has a ring tone, and an address book and texting are optional extras, and users can dial zero to reach an operator. The service already has “hundreds of thousands” of subscribers and is growing rapidly, according to Cooper.