Qualcomm Founder Dr. Irwin M. Jacobs Delights Attendees at CPIP’s Sixth Annual Fall Conference

By Kathleen Wills*

On October 11-12, 2018, the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) hosted its Sixth Annual Fall Conference at Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia. The theme of the conference was IP for the Next Generation of Technology, and it featured a number of panel discussions and presentations on how IP rights and institutions can foster the next great technological advances.

In addition to the many renowned scholars and industry professionals who lent their expertise to the event, the conference’s keynote address was delivered by Dr. Irwin M. Jacobs, founder of Qualcomm Inc. and inventor of the digital transmission technology for cell phones that gave birth to the smartphone revolution. The video of Dr. Jacobs’ keynote address, embedded just below, is also available here, and the transcript is available here.

After beginning his career as an electrical engineer and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Dr. Jacobs’ vision for the future of wireless communications drove him to found his first company, Linkabit, in the late 1960s. In the years that followed, Dr. Jacobs led teams that developed the first microprocessor-based satellite modem and scrambling systems for video and TV transmissions. In 1985, Dr. Jacobs founded Qualcomm, which pioneered the development of mobile satellite communications and digital wireless telephony on the national and international stage.

Dr. Jacobs’ keynote address focused on intellectual property’s role in the development of technology throughout his 50-year career. He began his speech by discussing his background in electrical engineering and academia at MIT and at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). After publishing a textbook on digital communications, Dr. Jacobs explained that he then transitioned into consulting and started Linkabit, where he learned the importance of intellectual property.

Dr. Jacobs recounted how he later sold the company to start Qualcomm with the “mobile situation” of satellite communications on his mind. At Qualcomm, Dr. Jacobs wanted to break from the standard technology in favor of code-division multiple access (CDMA). CDMA had the potential to attract more users with a system that limited the total amount of interference affecting each channel, and it wasn’t long before Qualcomm was assigned the first patent on the new technology.

Qualcomm’s first product was Omnitracs, a small satellite terminal designed for communicating with dishes that led to the creation of a GPS system. Qualcomm’s patented GPS device used antenna technology to calculate locations based on information about the terrain, and it was very valuable to the company.

Using that source of income, Dr. Jacobs revisited CDMA at a time when the industry pursued time-division multiple access (TDMA) for supporting the shift to second-generation digital cellular technology. However, Dr. Jacobs knew that CDMA had the potential to support 10 to 20 times more subscribers in a given frequency band per antenna than TDMA. Within one year, Qualcomm built a demonstration of CDMA. At that time, the size of the mobile phone was large enough to need a van to drive it around!

Dr. Jacobs explained that commercializing the technology required an investment for chips, and it wasn’t long before AT&T, Motorola, and some other companies signed up for a license. Qualcomm decided to license every patent for the next “n” years to avoid future licensing issues and collect a small royalty. The industry eventually set up a meeting comparing TDMA to CDMA, and CDMA’s successful demonstration convinced the Cellular Telephone Industry Association to allow a second standard. A standards-setting process took place and, a year and a half later, the first standard issuance was completed in July of 1993.

Speaking on the push for CDMA, Dr. Jacob’s explained that there were “religious wars” in Europe because governments had agreed to only use an alternate type of technology. Nevertheless, CDMA continued to spread to other countries and rose to the international stage during talks about the third generation of cellular technology involving simultaneous voice and data transmissions. Dr. Jacobs visited the European Commissioner for Competition and eventually arranged an agreement with Ericsson around 1999 based on a strategic decision: instead of manufacturing CDMA phones in San Diego, there would be manufacturers everywhere in the world.

Selling the infrastructure to Ericsson, Qualcomm dove into the technology, funded by the licenses. The strategic decision to embed technology in chips in order to sell the software broadly has been Qualcomm’s business model ever since. Dr. Jacobs explained that since “we felt we had well-protected patents,” and had a steady income from the licenses, the team could do additional R&D. With that support, they were the first to put GPS technology into a chip and into a phone, developed the first application downloadable for the phone, and looked ahead at the next generation of technology.

Dr. Jacobs said that he’s often asked, “Did you anticipate where all of this might go?” To that question he replies, “Every so often.” Qualcomm was able to move the industry forward because of the returns generated through its intellectual property. Dr. Jacobs early realized that the devices people were carrying around everywhere were going to be very powerful computers, and that “it’s probably going to be the only computer most of us need several years from now.”

“Protecting intellectual property, having that available, is very critical for what was then a very small company being able to grow,” Dr. Jacobs said. Because Dr. Jacobs relied on secure intellectual property rights to commercialize and license innovative products, and in turn used income from licensing patents for R&D, Qualcomm was—and continues to be—able to prioritize high performance computing and to keep the cellular technology industry moving forward.

To watch the video of Dr. Jacobs’ keynote address, please click here, and to read the transcript, please click here.

*Kathleen Wills is a 2L at Antonin Scalia Law School, and she works as a Research Assistant at CPIP