Meet the guy who made the first cellphone call 40 years ago today

The ArrayComm CEO is thrilled to see cell phones thrive -- despite AT&T.

A Q&A with Martin Cooper, the so-called "father of the cellular phone"

Martin Cooper

Martin Cooper isn't just the father of the cellular phone - he's also an avid user.

Cooper, who made the world's first cellular phone call as a Motorola executive in 1973 and who now serves as CEO of wireless software company ArrayComm, says he buys a new smartphone every two months just to keep himself up-to-date on the newest technological trends. Before he most recently bought the LTE-capable HTC Thunderbolt, he was the owner of a Motorola Droid X and an iPhone 4, which he promptly gave away to his grandson after making an upgrade.

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Needless to say, the 82-year-old Cooper says he couldn't have imagined how far mobile phones have come since he developed the first working mobile phone in the 1970s. In this question-and-answer session, we'll pick Cooper's brain about the history of cell phones, the Federal Communications Commission's wireless spectrum policies and how wireless devices have evolved so rapidly over the past 40 years.

What made you decide to create a mobile phone that went beyond the car phones that began popping up a few years earlier?

At the time we were in the business of providing portable communications to businesspeople, police departments and fire departments, and everything we learned about portability we learned from our customers. The best example I've got is when the superintendent of police in Chicago came to us and said, "My patrolmen are stuck in their cars but my constituency is the people, so I need my officers to be out on the streets." So that was one of the reasons we started learning about portability.

Then AT&T comes along and says, "We've got a new way of serving a lot of people using a limited amount of spectrum," and their solution was the car phone. And the reason that we built the first cell phone was not to change history but to stop AT&T from building a retrograde technology. For 100 years we were told by AT&T that the only way to communicate was to be wired to your wall and trapped behind your desk, and now they were going to try to trap you inside your car.

What was the moment when cellular phones went from luxury goods to staple consumer devices?

The first cellular systems didn't become commercially available until 1983. Most of the phones before then were in fact car phones. Even though we had designed the technology for true portability, most of the systems at that time were not designed for it. We found there were generally two types of people who used these phones: The first group was interested in having mobile phones as status symbols but the second group was made up of people who were more interested in having a new way to conduct business. So gradually you had people who were not in the top income classes using mobile phones in their daily lives.

Earlier you mentioned that you were competing with AT&T while you were working with Motorola in the '70s. Do you think the wireless industry would be successful as it's become if the government hadn't broken up Ma Bell?

I'm very biased because I think that competition is wonderful. Bell Labs was a fantastic research organization but having them create and market new products for the world was terrible. They were not good marketers and yet it was AT&T engineers who were deciding what the products of the future were. I thought that future products should be determined by consumers and the breakup of AT&T was important for the progress of telecommunications throughout the world.

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What's your take on the current state of the telecom industry, where wireless companies have gotten bigger and now AT&T is poised to merge with T-Mobile?

It would be a big mistake for the AT&T-T-Mobile merger to be approved. If you want to have a service that's worldwide like GSM or a GSM derivative, you'll only have one carrier that you could go to. There is no reason why T-Mobile can't be successful on its own and the only real reason AT&T would want to own T-Mobile is to increase its exclusivity by owning more spectrum.

What's your take on the looming spectrum shortage and the best way to handle it?

The notion that there's finite spectrum is mostly wrong. If that were the case we never would have gotten to where we are now. For the last hundred years we have been increasing the efficiency at which we use spectrum. In fact, about every two-and-a-half years we've managed to double the amount of data that you can send over spectrum. And if you can keep squeezing more data through a given amount of spectrum you'll never run out of it.

What the government ought to be doing is encouraging companies to invest in and develop technologies that improve spectrum efficiency. If I were in charge of the FCC I would say to the carriers, "You don't get any more spectrum, you'll have to come up with better ways to use it." Or I would say that if someone comes up with a way to more efficiently use spectrum then we'll let you use it.

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Did you ever envision back in 1973 that cellular phones would evolve into the mini-PCs that they've essentially become?

No. I like to think that I'm a really good futurist but at the time there were no personal computers, no World Wide Web, no MP3 players. We were in the Dark Ages [and the future of mobile data wasn’t clear].  Although I'm not at all humble of at least seeing the fact that freedom of mobility was going to be important. We knew that people would all have cell phones and they would all be talking over them.

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