SAN JOSE, Calif. – "It's been a fun life," quipped Irwin Jacobs, founder of Qualcomm Inc. on receiving a lifetime achievement award at the EE Times ACE Awards Tuesday night (May 3).
In a short acceptance speech and later in a roundtable interview with EE Times editors the co-inventor of the CDMA technology behind many of today's cellular networks told stories from the cellphone's past and shared predictions about its future with gusto and good humor.
Jacobs started his career in 1959 teaching engineering at MIT where he wrote a seminal text book on digital communications, and later at the University of California, San Diego, where he met longtime collaborators Leonard Kleinrock and Andrew Viterbi. In 1968, Jacobs and Viterbi formed Linkabit Corp. to develop some of the first satellite communications devices "which were huge products," Jacobs told the ACE audience.
"We sold the company and I retired, but that lasted only about three months until I started Qualcomm," said Jacobs. "I told my wife we might get up to having as many as 100 employees," he said of the now 19,000-person company.
In a video interview, Jacobs recounted some of the lucky moments on the road to establishing Qualcomm as a major player in cellular. The company was preparing to show an early demo of its CDMA technology housed in a van to a group of VIPs from Pacific Telesis, the local telephone provider.
As Jacobs explained the demo, Qualcomm engineers signaled him to stall because they had a technical glitch. "I was a professor, so I had no problem talking for another 45 minutes about CDMA," he said.
Engineers were able to figure out the GPS satellite they were using to synchronize their system had a bug. They rebooted their system and were able to successfully stage the demo.
"If it took them another half an hour, we would have lost our audience and been out of luck," Jacobs said.
The idea for CDMA came in 1985 during a car ride when Jacobs, Viterbi and Kleinrock were returning to San Diego from a meeting with their customer Hughes in Los Angeles. Hughes wanted improvements for its time division multiplexing system, and Jacobs started to roll out ideas for sharing spectrum that became the heart of code division multiple access technology.
"I told them to please look at the numbers and see if the ideas made sense," said Jacobs. But Kleinrock and Viterbi didn't follow up at first. "Two days later they said, 'Were you really serious?'"
In the end, "we all three chipped in ideas, but Hughes didn’t want it, so we set it aside," Jacobs said.
In its early days, Qualcomm had to get the blessing of the Federal Communications Commission on the concept. When a Canadian consultant tried to block Qualcomm from exporting CDMA, the company also had to seek out support from the U.S. State Department.
A full transcript of the interview with Jacobs will be available in June at EE Times Confidential.