November 8, 2006

Qualcomm CEO Talks Cell Phones

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Calling all Cornellians: love thy cell phones! Yesterday, the University welcomed Irwin M. Jacobs ’54, the 27th Robert S. Hatfield Fellow in Economic Education in his presentation of “The Incredible Cell Phone: Personal Notes on an Evolving Technology, Business Model, Applications and Global Impact.”

Jacobs, a Cornell engineering alumnus whom President David J. Skorton considers “one of the best communication scientists in the world,” is both co-founder and chairman of Qualcomm, a Fortune and Forbes 500 company, and author of Principles of Communication Engineering. Jacobs is the recipient of numerous prestigious awards, including the National Medal of Technology Award in 1994 from former President Bill Clinton, the Communications Society 2004 Distinguished Industry Leader Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and, most recently, the 2006 Economic Opportunity Award from LEAD San Diego and the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship.

A philanthropist as well as innovator, Jacobs, along with his wife, Joan, have recently donated $30 million toward the establishment of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Fellows and the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Scholars in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, supporting fifteen Cornell graduate students and over thirty scholars annually.

Beginning his career as a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and moving later to the University of California, San Diego, Jacobs left his thirteen-year teaching career to pursue the establishment of Linkabit, a consulting company. Jacobs and his team at Linkabit oversaw the creation of a host of novel satellite encryption devices. Restless as a retiree after selling the company in 1985, Jacobs co-founded Qualcomm, a once-small company with the aim to “maybe grow to 100 people.”

A pioneer in his field, Jacobs has effectively transformed a method once pigeonholed as a World War II communication into what is today a practical and widespread means of communication. His presentation revolved around the international implementation and far-reaching effects of Code-Division Multiple Access (CDMA) technology, which allows mobile carrier channels to access the full available spectrum, and providing efficiency and better capacity for voice and data communications.

The continued development of CDMA technology has enabled the cellular phone to become what is “now a very powerful computer,” Jacobs said. His discussion of the Scorpion Processor highlighted the ways in which the computing and communications abilities of the “super computer” from just one decade ago have, today, reached the palms of individuals worldwide.

Jacobs discussed the evolution of this new technology, emphasizing the global extent of its influence. For instance, he noted Japan and Europe’s recent adaptations of the originally U.S.-patented CDMA technology, as well as rural Indian farmers’ utilization of mobile phones in accessing information about pests, weather, crops, and consumer trends, allowing them to more directly and effectively sell their goods. He also mentioned the novel capabilities (and future potential) of new-age cellular phones, including built-in glucometers for diabetes victims, cardiac monitoring and broadband TV.

Finally, Jacobs introduced Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach Program for encouraging the “development of broad-range applications to enhance social and economic development,” offering five grants up to $500,000 for the creation of the most innovative proposals in the areas of health, education, public safety, governance and environment.

“What I was pleased most to hear were his stories about how technology is used in developing not only world technology, but helping those who need it,” said Chris Miller, Director of the Office of University Corporate Relations and coordinator of the annual Hatsfield event.

Charlie Phlegar, vice president of alumni affairs and development, agreed that Jacobs and his team “are very gentle, humble, and philanthropic people,” and was pleased to note that Qualcomm’s reaching out to developing countries “lines up with things President Skorton is doing all over the university.”

With ideas aplenty and motivation rarely equaled, Jacobs’s “business sense is just unbelievable, and his technology benefits a lot of people,” said Norman Chang, currently earning his master’s degree in Engineering.
As for Jacobs’s advice to the Cornell community?

“Take advantage of the theory applied here, and always work at new, innovative ways of doing things!” he said.