When Apple or Samsung unveils a new smartphone, consumers can preorder the device within days and expect to get it in their hands within weeks. When Motorola introduced the first-ever cellphone, the DynaTAC, in 1973, it took another decade before consumers could actually use one.
Ironically, it took the team at Motorola just three months to conceive and build the first DynaTAC, a minor miracle considering it takes 12 to 18 months today to do the same thing with a flagship smartphone. The company only made two prototypes; the culmination of thousands of parts welded together in a boot-shaped phone with a massive antenna. “It’s far more complicated than a modern phone, believe it or not,” Martin Cooper, who led the team at Motorola and is credited as the father of the cellphone.
Cooper shared stories about the whirlwind race to develop that first phone, which was less a commercial product and more an attempt to head off attempts by then-monopoly AT&T to get a stranglehold on the wireless business. The reaction he got from his colleagues: “That’s impossible.” They went to work anyway, culminating in Cooper’s memorable first-ever cellphone call to rival AT&T engineer Joel Engel while standing on a sidewalk in Manhattan next to a journalist.
“I didn’t hold back at all in rubbing it in,” Cooper quipped, noting that to this day, Engel says he doesn’t remember the call. Cooper reflects back on the impact that cellphones have had on the world, and what the wireless business still needs to do when it comes to issues like closing the broadband gap and the real promise of 5G . He shared his ’70s-inspired business insights, like taking a customer-centric approach to products and services and embracing a willingness to fail, that still holds true today.
Given the dominance of AT&T at that time, Cooper also speculates on what would have happened had Motorola failed and Ma Bell taken control of the wireless business.
Those stories are part of his new book, Cutting the Cord, which came out earlier this year.
While cellphones, and now modern smartphones, have brought new ways to access information to more people than ever, there are still many left behind. Cooper estimates that 40% of the students in this country don’t have access to broadband wireless. “Just imagine what that means over the long term,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Cooper said the technology exists to deliver wireless broadband to students for as little as $5 to $10 a month, and that the government needs to be more proactive in convincing carriers to offer such services. “It’s as essential as water and food,” he said. “We need to have 100% accessibility to broadband services not just for students, but everyone.”
A key mantra expressed by the wireless industry is the continuous need for more spectrum, or the radio airwaves that ferry everything from cat videos to text messages from your phone to a cell tower. But Cooper said that technology has always kept the industry ahead of spectrum demand, with the wireless industry finding ways to fit more data into those airwaves.
“There’s plentiful spectrum,” he said, noting that his unofficial “Cooper’s Law” states that spectrum capacity doubles every two and a half years.
Cooper railed against Federal Communications Commission’s spectrum auctions like the one that wrapped up in late February. Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile spent $81bilion on radio airwaves for 5G services. “Someone that has paid billions of dollars for radio airwaves would not appreciate the idea of plentiful spectrum,” he said, adding that spectrum should be only allocated to companies that can deliver services that take care of human needs.
Likewise, he says the focus and hype around 5G and what it can do is all wrong. Rather than focusing on connecting more devices like self-driving cars and giving people insane mobile speeds, the industry should focus more on expanding access to more people and bringing down costs.
“We haven’t finished the internet of people yet, and the industry is already emphasizing the internet of things,” he said.