Cell-Phone Inventor Touts Broadband Wireless
Cell-Phone Inventor Touts Broadband Wireless

Cell-Phone Inventor Touts Broadband Wireless

Cell-Phone Inventor Touts Broadband Wireless

In 1973 Martin Cooper, the inventor of the first portable handset, was the first person to make a call on a cell phone (from Motorola to arch-rival Bell.) Now he’s Chairman of ArrayComm, which has developed its iBurst Personal Broadband System based on adaptive array antenna technology. According to the company, iBurst allows mega-bit-per-second cellular bandwidth with much better efficiency than anything extant 3G systems can provide. In today’s exclusive WWJ interview, Cooper argues that 4G is already here; launches broadsides at carriers, engineers, and handset makers who have yet to fulfill the promise of wireless phones; and charges that, after “years of hype,” the industry has failed to deliver on 3G. He also relates his vision for the mobile space: “The Internet will engender thousands of different [mobile] applications.” This interview is a WWJ Classic.

The thing that most impressed us about Cooper is that he’s not forgotten the joy of wireless communication and cares passionately about the consumer; his idealism seems irrepressible. Thirty-one years after the development of the first, one-kilogram-plus, Dyn-Tac mobile phone, carriers still drop calls – which Cooper sees as the industry forgetting its basic duty to provide functioning pipes (instead of building empires,) while complexity has replaced bulk as a problem for consumers.

Of course, to survive in the real world, carriers have to struggle with platforms that will allow them to make profits and develop multimedia ecosystems. But today, few mobile phones are so simple that you can make a call or surf without a degree in engineering, and – as DoCoMo demonstrated and everyone seems to have learned – you need 97-per-cent-plus (and decently working) network coverage before any new network will achive consumer acceptance. Otherwise, customers will give you the finger, and that finger is not pressing the i-mode button on their celly.

After watching ever-slicker-DoCoMo-promo after slick-DoCoMo-promo showing near-future scenarios seemingly inspired by movies like Minority Report, it was refreshing to hear that Cooper’s vision of low-cost, fat-pipe mobile bandwidth is not just vaporware – it’s actually in operation. ArrayComm technology is being used in a commercial service launch in Sydney, Australia, and results appear to be proving Cooper correct.

During beta testing in fall 2003, ArrayComm says the network covered more than 100-square kilometres and 1 million people with just 6 base stations; users saw thruputs of 1 Mbps in urban areas at up to 5 kilometres from a base station and up to 600 kbps at 12 kilometres. Multi-wall indoor penetration from out-of-sight base stations more than 4 kilometres away was common.

The service provider using ArrayComm’s technology, Personal Broadband Australia (PBBA – described as a “4G provider”), is offering service to businesses for a set-up fee of AUD$399 or $499 (32,319 or 40,419 JPY) and 500MB of data for AUD$160, 170, or 180 per month (12,960 to 14,580 JPY). Granted, these fees are far above anything Japanese consumers would be likely to pay, but Japanese businesses probably would – if they had the option.

WWJ caught up with Cooper at last month’s 3G Mobile World Summit in Tokyo, where he started his speech describing people floating around the Sydney Opera House, opening up their notebooks and getting instant mega-bit communication.

“Has the promise of 3G finally been fulfilled in Sydney? I’m afraid not,” he told the audience.

“After all the years of hype and exaggeration, there is not a simple 3G system in the world that can deliver megabit speeds to consumers at prices that can foster mass adoption of 3G – that can deliver wireless broadband to consumers as well as business people.”

“We already have a model for success in the wireless industry. There are a billion people in the world today that are enjoying, that are dependent upon, voice cellular services. There is no disputing the value of voice communications. That service – voice alone – has changed all of our lives, I hope for the better.”

“And then along came GPRS, EDGE, and an alphabet soup of CDMA data; and we got a taste – just a little taste – of the 3G promise. We had access to email and data on a packet-switched basis, too slow to really avail ourselves of the Internet, but with a truly amazing ubiquity.”

“These data services are agonizingly slow for some applications but we can use them virtually everywhere and they are quite adequate for email and for accessing small amounts of data. There’s at least one candidate for a killer app. And then along came Wi-Fi – 802.11. Now we had blazing speed, 10-megabits-per-second and more, but the hype artists were still at it with regard to coverage. The hype is a range of 100 meters; the reality is 2 walls – whether that’s 10 meters or 20 meters. Wi-Fi is wonderful for LANs, for home or enterprises, but it’s not practical to cover wide areas. Why is it not practical? To cover a country like Japan with traditional cellular base stations requires a minimum of about 5,000 sites. To achieve the same coverage with Wi-Fi would take a million sites and I remind you each of these million sites has to be equipped with a broadband connection to the Internet.”

So here comes Cooper to the rescue with iBurst – and the brilliance of his point is that it appears to be true. The ability to cover half a city with 16 base stations using a technology that reduces costs by orders of magnitude lower than 3G so as to offer what is in effect “portable broadband” is scarily, monstrously wonderful. Cooper’s system uses only 5 MHz of spectrum in the 1900-Hz band; it’s expected that 1,500 subscribers will be served with superior 1-megabit-per-second service when the system is fully loaded. This demonstrates a spectral efficiency (amount of data delivered per megahertz of bandwidth) that is some 20 times better than current 3G.

In the traditional telecommunications model, says Cooper, the carrier provides transport of information but also delivers the application to the end customer. “That works reasonably well if there are just one or two applications. But broadband Internet will engender a myriad of applications that will improve our productivity, entertain us, make us safer, and make our lives easier. No one carrier could possibly facilitate such a diverse group of applications for an equally diverse group of constituencies,” he says.

Cooper’s reality is much more than a super-WLAN. He would like it to be a threat to the entrenched carrier/handset maker monolith – or at least that’s what he suggests publicly. For the consumer, what about the ability to make a single purchase of a $50 chip-card to plug any phone into one of the very few super-base stations offering 5- to 20-Mbps bandwidth, who maybe would be insulted at anything less than a bargain-bucket flat-rate fee? iBurst-based services may not yet be able to offer consumer-level pricing, but it may just be a matter of time. Almost all technologies decline in cost once adoption passes a certain threshold.

In the meantime, iBurst looks to us like a clear and present danger. It’s enough to make any CEO of an incumbent Japanese 3G cellco weep in his mizu-wari (whiskey and water).

— The Editors