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Bry on Business: ‘Father of the cellphone’ shares vision of the past and future

The first cellphone, forebear of the contemporary smartphone (pictured), debuted in 1973.
The first cellphone, forebear of the contemporary smartphone (pictured), debuted in 1973.
(File / AP)

Marty Cooper is best known as the “father of the cellphone” that debuted in 1973, long before the internet, the personal computer, the cordless phone or even a television remote control.

At 92, the San Diego resident still is actively engaged in the wireless world — advocating on how to bridge the digital divide and bring affordable broadband internet access to all parts of our country. Earlier this year, he published his autobiography, “Cutting the Cord: The Cell Phone Has Transformed Humanity.”

Recently, my husband, Neil, and I talked with Cooper in a far-ranging Zoom conversation.

Cooper’s parents immigrated to the United States from Ukraine. He grew up in Chicago, was the first in his family to graduate from college (Illinois Institute of Technology), served as a submarine officer during World War II, and for more than 20 years worked for Motorola, where he led development of the first cellphone.

His first call on a New York street was to his rival in the Bell System. “We were in the middle of a battle. I said, ‘Joel, I’m calling you from a real cellphone, a handheld cellphone.’ I was rubbing it in,” Cooper said.

The Bell System had planned to focus on developing a cellphone that would be permanently installed in a car. Cooper thought that was the wrong strategy because portability was essential.

“Technology means nothing if it doesn’t do something for people,” he said.

Cooper said he left Motorola because “I never really fit into the corporate world. Motorola was great because they let me be a character. I had moved up as far as I could.”

One important takeaway here: If you want to do new things, you can’t fear failure.

Meeting Arlene Harris, who became his business partner and wife, was pivotal. Their first venture together was a company that handled the billing for cellphones. Cooper dedicated his autobiography to Harris: “To the first lady of wireless and the only lady in my heart.”

What’s the secret to staying married while working together?

“It’s tough,” Cooper said. “There are times when you say ‘Let’s not talk about business. Let’s talk about anything else.’ It takes mutual respect. If you extend yourself more than 50 percent, you work it out.”

Neil also would advocate for the magic words “Yes, dear!”

Cooper’s maxims resonated with us:

• The best way to think outside the box is not to create the box in the first place.

• People are inherently, naturally and fundamentally mobile.

• People connect with people, not places.

• There is an abundance, not a shortage, of spectrum.

“Students who have access to broadband will be challenged and enhanced from the time they are children. Their brains will grow faster and they will be smarter,” Cooper said. “Can you imagine a world where 50 percent are smart because they have access and 50 percent are deprived?”

He contends that 5G is a good technology, but for the internet to be ubiquitous to students, it is not necessary. The enemy of good enough is perfect. “The carriers have forgotten that the objective of technology is to make lives better. They try to persuade you that the only way to build a cell system is to have economies of scale,” he said.

Cooper says it’s possible to have entrepreneurs build an education-focused wireless system covering both urban and rural areas that charges $5 to $10 per month. There is enough spectrum, he contends, and the antennas can be installed on schools and libraries and beam out to the neighborhoods around them.

The city of San Diego has taken some steps to address the digital divide. Our libraries offer internet and the ability to check out laptops and mobile hot spots. The San Diego Parks Foundation is installing Wi-Fi at parks, more community hot spots are being installed, and the city has used federal stimulus funds to subsidize some customer bills.

But these efforts don’t reach everyone in need in a focused, sustainable solution for the long term. Recently, the City Council passed an emergency ordinance to speed up the time to install digital infrastructure — a windfall for the carriers — but this didn’t address the affordability issue.

Rule No. 668: Let’s focus on the right things.

Barbara Bry of La Jolla was the San Diego City Council member for District 1 from 2016 to 2020. She and her husband, Neil Senturia, are serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies. You can hear their weekly podcast on innovation and entrepreneurship at imthereforyoubaby.com. Email ideas to neil@blackbirdv.com.