Irwin Mark Jacobs

Professor Yash Pal

Awarded the Marconi Prize in 2011

Irwin Mark Jacobs, a native of New Bedford, Massachusetts, survived a host of bad advice throughout his life. His high school guidance counselor dismissed his love of math and physics, declaring that there was “no future” in science nor engineering. Instead, he persuaded Jacobs to enroll in Cornell University’s program in hotel management, based on his family’s ownership of a small restaurant. But after a year and a half, Jacobs decided to follow his true passion and transferred to electrical engineering.

After graduating Cornell with a BEE in 1956, he earned his master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and remained as an assistant, then associate professor of electrical engineering at MIT until 1966. He picked up more faulty advice when he began co-writing a textbook adapting what was then brand new digital theory and information theory to communications. “Treat it like applied mathematics,” some of his MIT cohorts said, “because it has limited practical use.”

It’s been almost 50 years since he and Jack Wozencraft published that book – “Principles of Communication Engineering” – yet it remains in use today and is regarded as one of the best textbooks written in the field. And, of course, digital and information theory were to revolutionize communications in extremely practical and profitable ways.

For his doctorate, he worked on probabilistic graphs – in particular, on the connectivity of networks with unreliable links and nodes. That also would prove to be great background for later work on telephone networks and, of course, the Internet.

In 1966, Jacobs was invited to become professor of computer science and engineering at the nascent University of California, San Diego. At first he said no: family, friends and career were all on the East Coast. But after a couple of days of cold, drenching rain, the lure of warm, sunny Southern California and the opportunity to shape a new curriculum at a new university pulled him and his wife west.

While teaching at UCSD, he had more requests for consulting than he could handle by himself, and joined with fellow academics Andrew Viterbi and Leonard Kleinrock (both now Marconi Fellows) to establish a side business, Linkabit Corp., consulting for defense contractors and NASA. It grew rapidly, becoming a fulltime endeavor, and Jacobs left UCSD to become the company’s president and CEO. Linkabit carved out key niches in digital communications, including high-performance digital satellite communications. It developed Very Small Aperture Earth Terminals (VSATs), connecting Walmart stores and warehouses and enabling drivers to pay with credit cards at the gas pump; and VideoCipher, for scrambling and descrambling TV signals from satellite to cable heads or homes.

Having made a sizeable fortune by the time Linkabit merged with M/A-Com, Jacobs retired in April 1985. Retirement lasted three months. Though a venture capitalist warned him that people who score huge success with their first company tended to fail attempting to duplicate their luck a second time, Jacobs and six other former colleagues ignored their advice and formed Qualcomm in July 1985. As CEO and later chairman, Jacobs piloted its growth from startup to Fortune 500 Company.

Qualcomm’s first successful commercial product was an innovative satellite communication and tracking system for the trucking industry, using a small but high gain, low cost antenna that could reliably track and communicate via satellites designed for larger fixed antennas. By incorporating spread-spectrum technology and advanced signal processing with the unique antenna design, firms could use the system to track their truck fleets. Two decades later, this OmniTRACS system remains in widespread use.

“It’s important to note that even though Jacobs was the CEO, he actually designed the antenna himself,” said information theorist James L. Massey, a former student in Jacobs’ MIT lectures and a Marconi Fellow. Now Qualcomm was ready to roll the dice in the cellular industry, which was then moving from analog to digital systems. Jacobs knew the future was in mobile devices – affordable phones that put the capacity of a computer into a pocket. But how to increase capacity in the mobile environment? Experts were focused on either frequency division multiple access (FDMA) or time-division multiple access (TDMA). But a brainstorm struck Jacobs in classic Southern California fashion – while he was on the freeway: code-division multiple access (CDMA).

Each party during a phone call typically speaks for less than half of the time. With conventional TDMA and FDMA, one cannot gain capacity by surrendering the channel in use when not speaking and regaining it when needed. But with CDMA, conversations are separately coded and all occupy the full frequency spectrum, when active. A conversation can be identified by its code and heard properly if the “noise” generated by all of the other conversations is not too loud. A party who is not speaking does not generate noise and his or her share of the spectrum can be used immediately by others. This, Jacobs realized, was a better way to cram more calls onto scarce wireless spectrum. Combined with the interference rejection inherent in spread spectrum communications, a CDMA system could be very efficient for voice and data calls.

The idea was considered a daring departure from conventional wireless wisdom. “Some said our capacity claims for CDMA violated the laws of physics and that it would never really work,” Jacobs recalled. “Again, so much for advice.” Despite years of industry opposition, he persevered at proving the superiority of CDMA. Ultimately, it became the standard for all third generation cellular worldwide. Jacobs’ contributions were “fundamental to the technical and commercial success of CDMA technology,” noted Roberto Padovani, Qualcomm’s executive vice president and chief technology officer. “Undoubtedly, he has played a key role in the establishment of CDMA as the foundation of third-generation cellular systems or 3G, which have now reached one billion global subscribers” for voice and mobile broadband Internet access.

Today Jacobs and his wife Joan are robust supporters of charities, education and the arts – in fact, UCSD’s School of Engineering is named after them. They have been listed by Business Week and the Chronicle of Philanthropy as among the 50 most generous people in the United States. Last year they joined a group of 40 U.S. billionaires who pledged to give away at least half of their wealth to philanthropic causes.
Among his many awards, he has received the President’s National Medal of Technology. “I’m very optimistic about how wireless technology can close all kinds of gaps and better the world, but then again, I tend to be an optimist,” Jacobs said. Technology, he said, can maximize energy grid efficiency, increase access to education, and allow residents of remote areas of the third world to get medical help and improve their societies, as exemplified by the critical role social networking played recently in political uprisings against oppression in Africa and the Middle East.