Disconnects on Wi-Fi and cell phones

He helped usher in a communications transformation by inventing the cell phone, but now Martin Cooper says that cellular carriers are making big mistakes in releasing Wi-Fi and other advanced data services across the nation.

Ben Charny
Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
6 min read
Martin Cooper doesn't get any special treatment from carriers just because he invented the now ubiquitous cell phone three decades ago. Even his Motorola V-60 from Verizon Wireless cuts off callers in midsentence, he said.

So count Cooper among the tens of millions of wireless dialers wondering why carriers are pushing new features like text messaging, when what they ought to do is make sure that calls go through all the time.

As he puts it: "We have not yet achieved the original dream" of being able to use a phone anywhere and call anyone, anywhere.

Cooper--now chairman and CEO of wireless technology company ArrayComm--also believes that time is fleeting for cellular technology, which might have run its course. The industry needs to find a better way of ferrying calls over the air, he said.

He spoke about these and other topics with CNET News.com on the 30th anniversary of the first-ever cell phone call.

Q: You made the first cell phone call. What happened?
A: Here we are on, out on the streets of New York, surrounded by these blas? New Yorkers gawking at us because they've never seen somebody standing on the street dialing a phone number with one of these. I decided this was a great opportunity to needle my counterpart at Bell Laboratories. I would not suggest he was a friendly competitor, but we had been speaking. I called him and said, 'Joe, I'm calling you from a real portable cellular telephone.' I thought I heard gnashing of teeth in the background, but he was polite. And we had a chat for a while.

So the first cell phone call was to talk some smack?
I love competition.

What do you think of the merging of cell phones and other devices, like PDAs?

SMS is too hard to use in the United States.
I'm not crazy about the concept of universal devices. I think the way you serve people is by optimizing the functionality of whatever it is you're building. If you try to make something universal, it does not do any of those things very well. The carriers have gone just a little bit too far in trying to consolidate all these things into one gadget--telephones, PDAs, cameras, MP3 players. They've become so difficult to use and thus compromise the features.

So you aren't buying any camera phones. Instead of the "Swiss Army knife" of phones, what should the industry focus on?
I think we are going to regress. We are going to start, first of all, with a really good cellular phone that works all the time. And we haven't gotten quite there yet.

Are you satisfied with voice coverage?
We have not yet achieved the original dream. There was no technical reason why cellular shouldn't be as reliable and as low in cost as a wired phone. If you can serve enough people from a single station and you don't have to run wires to a new location, it ought to be lower in cost. The carriers have to move onto the next generation of technology. And they ought to focus instead of looking for different applications and forcing these applications on people; they ought to be fixing the fundamental problem: getting voice right. You can make a call, but how long can you keep talking before it drops?

What's wrong?
There are too many people on a limited amount of channels. What they have to do is come up with new technology that makes this same number of channels accommodate more people. That's why you get dropped calls almost all the time. It has nothing to do with coverage, which is really pretty good. What happens is you move from one cell to another, there are no channels available and all of a sudden you find yourself talking to empty space.

But carriers seem to be pushing their data services over their core product--voice.

You ever sent a short text message? Ever sent a picture message?
I use a little bit of data; I do get e-mail messages on my cell phone. That's the extent of it. SMS is too hard to use in the United States. I'm sure there are a lot of applications that would do very well that do have a data capability. But it's too slow to do any of what you would call Internet applications. Even the highly touted next-generation cellulars. You're lucky if you get speeds equal to a dialup. Furthermore, thinking you could watch a movie on a screen that big is kind of silly.

The phone booth is pretty much obsolete. That's what's going to happen in the future to Wi-Fi.
So how do things like MMS get started?
We're still looking at the old monopoly way of thinking. Look at the old AT&T: Bell Labs would think of things, and they would turn it over to Western Electric. They would manufacture it, and then give it to an operating company who would give it to the consumer and say, `This is what you want.' The competitive world doesn't work that way. They have an entrepreneur--a marketing guy--going around saying, `Here's a need not being fulfilled. I'm going to take care of that need.' They go back to the labs and say, `Engineers go and build this.' That's how a competitive free enterprise world works.

Where does Wi-Fi fit in with cellular?
Wi-Fi is wonderful. It is a superb local area network--what it was designed to do--and it does that very well. When you try to make Wi-Fi cover a wide area, it's absolutely the worst way to do it. Think about it. In order to cover a city, you need a million sites; we actually did an analysis of that. And every one of them has got to have backhaul. So it turns out it's neither economical nor practical.

But most U.S. cellular carriers are building hot spots all over the place. Are they making the wrong move?
There are people who are talking about doing hot spots. For some, that might be functional, but hot spots are a little like phone booths. What happened to the phone booth when everybody has a phone...The phone booth is pretty much obsolete. That's what's going to happen in the future to Wi-Fi. We will have systems that provide inexpensive wide area coverage that were designed for that purpose.

When you made the world's first cell phone call, you had all the spectrum to yourself. But apparently, there's now a shortage. Is that right?
We've been using the spectrum better and better for a hundred years. When Marconi made his first transatlantic call, he used the entire usable spectrum all over the world for one phone call. Subsequently, we have managed on the average to double that capability --the number of calls you could make in the whole spectrum in the whole world--every two and a half years. We are a trillion times better today than where we were when Marconi was calling in 1896.

What's the next big step for the cell phone?
The carriers are now using this modern technology called cellular. But wait a second, it was invented in 1945 and implemented in 1983. We're ready for the next generation, which I think are smart antennas. With that, you don't need nearly as much spectrum. It literally multiplies the spectrum by many times.

Are there any new wireless technologies you're excited about?
We just had a photographer taking pictures, talking about how he could send one picture in two minutes. My vision of photography in the future is you take a picture of somebody and in one second that picture appears somewhere else far away. It's the same with music downloading and telemedicine.