Irwin Jacobs: Captain of CDMA

Qualcomm cofounder Irwin M. Jacobs wins the 2013 IEEE Medal of Honor for his pioneering work in digital communications

10 min read
Irwin M. Jacobs, chief executive officer of Qualcomm
Photo: Gregg Segal

It was September 1989, and the cellphone industry was booming. Companies were building new towers as fast as they could, using the prevailing analog technology, but they were encountering problems with capacity and quality of service. Earlier that year, the industry had decided to move to digital transmission using time-division multiple access. TDMA shared the airwaves by slicing up each available frequency channel into time slots. A caller's phone transmitted digitized signals in short bursts during the slot assigned to the handset. It wasn't a particularly efficient use of the broadcast spectrum, but it worked. 


Irwin M. Jacobs, chief executive officer of what was a little San Diego company called Qualcomm, believed he had a better approach. He wanted to take an idea then being used for ­secure military communications—Code Division Multiple ­Access, or CDMA—and adapt it to commercial cellphone networks, which would allow multiple conversations to share the same frequencies at the same time. He knew this technology could serve many more customers with fewer towers. But an awful lot of people didn't believe he could pull this off, and time was running out. The more companies and consumers purchased TDMA equipment, the harder it would be for a new technology to gain a foothold.


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