The man credited with inventing the world's first wireless phone while at Motorola Corp. is now immersed in developing a new technology called i-BURST that could revolutionize wireless Internet access. Martin Cooper, now CEO of ArrayComm in San Jose, is working on technology designed to make the most efficient use of the airways for wireless communication.
His technology faces a regulatory challenge, however. ArrayComm and 11 other companies are asking the Federal Communications Commission for a piece of wireless spectrum for their technology. If the consortium succeeds, its new technology will enable wireless Internet users to make data transfers at the light speed of 1 megabit per second. That's faster, by far, than any of the existing networks.
Cooper is confident the FCC's answer will be yes, as wireless spectrum for advanced networks is growing scarcer by the minute. But Pentagon and television stations using some of the spectrum today don't want to give it up. Cooper recently talked with BusinessWeek Online technology reporter Olga Kharif. Here are edited excerpts of their talk.
Q: What does i-BURST, your portable broadband system, do? And when will it be available?
A: i-BURST is specifically designed for Internet access. It allows you to be anywhere [and] have broadband [or high-speed] access. We're talking about a megabit-per-second maximum speed, which is enough to do just about anything we can think of, and it's always on. So you could, in one of the implementations, just plug a modem into your notebook computer, and, wherever you were in the country, [be] instantly on the Internet at a megabit per second.
We have an experimental license from the FCC to provide commercial service in San Diego by the end of this year. And we expect that within two years, this system will be in nationwide deployment in the U.S. We're also targeting Europe and Japan. And ArrayComm has a license for spectrum in Australia, so that market is clearly a target as well.
Q: Do you have a lot of competition?
A: Interestingly enough, six months ago we were the only ones, and now it seems like the whole world has just recognized what we did -- that 3G [or next-generation technology] is an important advance in cellular telephone.... There's a company called Flarion and a company called BeamReach.
But i-BURST has two attributes that we think makes it superior. First, it's specifically designed for Internet access and optimized for that. And second, it uses smart-antenna technology. This is a technology that ArrayComm has been working on for 10 years, and that we've now deployed all around the world in some 70,000 bay stations. That technology makes the use of the radio spectrum very efficient, and the result is much lower cost with much higher performance -- fewer bay stations to cover a given area and lots of other benefits.
Q: Who do you expect to be your customers? Don't existing networks have the capacity to handle most customers' needs already?
A: The first customers are going to be the same kind of people who log on to the Internet today. They will be people doing e-mail and browsing, and things of that nature with a modem. A customer who goes to America Online now pays some $22 a month plus his telephone bill. We will be able to provide him, for about the same money [$25 to $30 per month], the same kind of access. But at speeds of a megabit per second and with the ability to be anywhere -- a huge, huge difference in the nature of the service, for about the same price.
Q: Does this mean that a company like AOL should look into this type of technology?
A: They should certainly consider that as a very important form of access. I'm not sure we've convinced AOL yet, but we're sure going to try. Their customers, unchained from a desk, and unchained from a digital subscriber line, will get a lot more service and a much bigger variety of services than they're getting today.
Q: How are your talks with the FCC about allocating special spectrum for this technology progressing?
A: Our work with the FCC is progressing extraordinarily well, and the FCC has been very responsive. The issue of spectral efficiency is very important to them. They granted us this experimental license.
The thing that we have asked for as a consortium of 12 companies is an open playing field for spectrum. In other words, when the FCC allocates new spectrum, that the people who are doing this technology have as much access to that spectrum as anyone else. We're not looking for any favoritism. And the FCC has already been very responsive, and we have every reason to believe they'll continue to do that.
The FCC has already identified a number of segments of spectrum that it's planning to auction off in the not-too-distant future. And we're encouraging them to do so.
Q: What if FCC decides against auctioning off spectrum for this technology? What's going to happen to your company and your product?
A: We're convinced that the availability of spectrum is just a matter of time. It's not a matter of whether they do it or not. The fact is, there is spectrum that is sitting there and available, and it's only a question of when they're going to do it.
Q: What do you expect future wireless technology to be like?
A: This vision we have of the future is not the way people have viewed wireless and telephone in the past. In the past, people have tried to build universal systems that would do everything. And the vision that I have is of different systems for different kinds of applications.
An example: All communications today is digital. One of the important applications in digital is voice, so that's why 3G systems will prosper. And they're going to grow really substantially because, if you think about it, the actual percentage of time that people spend on wireless phones compared to their total talking time is still very small.
It's still on the order of 3% to 4% in the U.S. and maybe twice as much in Europe. But if cellular worked as well as wireline, then you and I would both be talking on cellular phones today, and here we are both on wired phones. So we're going to see some big improvements in voice communications.