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Cellular Pioneer Knew Technology Would Be Important, but Never Imagined Billions of Users, Mobile Internet
Richard Frenkiel to be honored with School of Engineering's Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award
No single person can be labeled the inventor of cellular mobile telephone technology, but Rutgers alumnus Richard Frenkiel comes mighty close.
While the idea of a cellular system originated in the 1940s, it was two decades later when Bell Labs engineers Frenkiel and Phil Porter created the first detailed system plan. Their 1966 document kicked off a 50-person development team in 1968, which grew to hundreds of engineers working towards cellular’s commercial debut in 1983.
“We understood that we were working on something important – something that would change things,” Frenkiel said. “We thought it was going to matter.”
Frenkiel would later be recognized with prestigious awards from his company and professional societies, culminating with the U.S. Government’s National Medal of Technology in 1994.
Next week, he adds one more to his collection – the School of Engineering’s Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award.
While he and his colleagues knew they were on to something, they vastly underestimated how popular it would become.
“We thought there would be a few million phones by the turn of the century, but the migration from car phone to pocket phone came faster than we expected, and that led to dramatic growth. Instead of a few million phones, it was hundreds of millions. There’s no way we saw a market as big as it is.”
Today, that number is six billion.
And while they foresaw cell phones “eventually” moving from cars into pockets, Frenkiel said they didn’t foresee the other major trend that continues to drive cellular growth.
“Cellular and the Internet together were not something we visualized – that you could be carrying something in your pocket that was not just a talking device, but basically a portal to all that the Internet has become.”
Frenkiel seemed an unlikely person to lead the cellular charge. His undergraduate degree from Tufts University is in mechanical engineering, as is his master’s degree from Rutgers. He pursued his Rutgers studies part time in 1963, shortly after starting work at Bell Labs in Holmdel. His first job involved designing “recorded announcement” machines that told callers the time of day or gave them phone numbers.
But Bell Labs encouraged talented scientists and engineers to pursue their interests and demonstrate what they could accomplish, and cellular looked attractive. He learned about radio technology on the job by not being afraid to ask “stupid questions,” a practice he continued after retiring from Bell Labs and joining the Rutgers Wireless Information Network Laboratory (WINLAB) in 1994 as a senior advisor.
“I started to realize that asking stupid questions is actually valuable, because it makes people justify what they’re doing,” he said. He believes his insistence for clarity, developed through years of experience in communicating with AT&T headquarters and its regulators, helped the fledgling WINLAB earn research grants.
“Researchers often focus on the complexity of their work. My focus was to get proposals into words I would understand. Perhaps that helped evaluators to see more clearly why our work was important.”
He also helped match WINLAB’s research to practical issues. In 1995, Frenkiel described the problem that cellular systems would have carrying data, in particular the huge volume of data associated with video. His thoughts were prophetic. When Apple’s iPhone hit the market in 2007, eager web surfers quickly clogged cellular networks in New York and San Francisco. The cellular carrier was forced to react by revoking unlimited data plans.
“We saw that something with very short range and huge capacity, like Wi-Fi, was going to be needed to cope with the amount of information you needed to carry,” he said.
While Frenkiel appreciates the School of Engineering’s award, his real reward comes from just being at Rutgers and teaching a course in wireless business strategy.
“I love teaching and interacting with the people at WINLAB,” he said. He finds the WINLAB environment similar to Bell Labs during the cellular development days: a place where creative people of varying backgrounds and skills interact freely to solve problems and advance knowledge.
The Rutgers School of Engineering is in its seventh year of honoring outstanding alumni who have made contributions to government, industry and academia. This year’s awards will be presented at the close of National Engineers Week, an event observed by universities, companies, and professional societies to recognize contributions engineers make to society and encourage young people to pursue the field.
Sharing awards with Frenkiel this year are Michael Grandinetti, named the school’s Alumnus of the Year; C. Stewart Slater, recognized for Alumni Achievement in Academia; and Cristina Comaniciu, honored as Distinguished Young Alumna. In addition, the school’s alumni organization – the Rutgers Engineering Society – named William Imbriale its Distinguished Engineer of the Year. Further information about these honorees is available at the school's Medal of Excellence website.
Media Contact: Carl Blesch
732-932-7084, ext. 616