Cellphone inventor calls the digital divide ‘unacceptable’

March 4, 2021 0 By boss



On April 3, 1972, Motorola executive Martin Cooper made the first call from a cellphone using a Motorola Dynatac 8000x.

Kent German/CNET

When Apple or Samsung unveils a new smartphone, consumers can preorder the device within days and expect to get it in their hands within weeks. When Motorola introduced the first-ever cellphone, the DynaTAC, in 1973, it took another decade before consumers could actually use one. 

Talk about delayed gratification. 

Ironically, it took the team at Motorola just three months to conceive and build the first DynaTAC, a minor miracle considering it takes 12 to 18 months today to do the same thing with a flagship smartphone. The company only made two prototypes, the culmination of thousands of parts welded together in a boot-shaped phone with a massive antenna. 

“It’s far more complicated than a modern phone, believe it or not,” Martin Cooper, who led the team at Motorola and is credited as the father of the cellphone, said in an interview for the Daily Charge podcast last week.

Cooper shared stories about the whirlwind race to develop that first phone, which was less a commercial product and more an attempt to head off attempts by then-monopoly AT&T to get a stranglehold on the wireless business. The reaction he got from his colleagues: “That’s impossible.” They went to work anyway, culminating in Cooper’s memorable first-ever cellphone call to rival AT&T engineer Joel Engel while standing on a sidewalk in Manhattan next to a journalist. 

“I didn’t hold back at all in rubbing it in,” Cooper quipped, noting that to this day, Engel says he doesn’t remember the call. 

Cooper reflects back on the impact that cellphones have had on the world, and what the wireless business still needs to do when it comes to issues like closing the broadband gap and the real promise of 5G. He shared his ’70s-inspired business insights, like taking a customer-centric approach to products and services and embracing a willingness to fail, that still holds true today.

Given the dominance of AT&T at that time, Cooper also speculates on what would have happened had Motorola failed and Ma Bell taken control of the wireless business. (Hint: AT&T was really big into car phones at the time.)

Those stories are part of his new book, Cutting the Cord, which came out earlier this year.

The following are more of this thoughts from the interview.

On the digital divide

While cellphones, and now modern smartphones, have brought new ways to access information to more people than ever, there are still many left behind. Cooper estimates that 40% of the students in this country don’t have access to broadband wireless. 

“Just imagines what that means over the long term,” he said. “That’s unacceptable.”

Cooper said the technology exists to deliver wireless broadband to students for as little as $5 to $10 a month, and that the government needs to be more proactive in convincing carriers to offer such services. 

“It’s as essential as water and food,” he said. “We need to have 100% accessibility to broadband services not just for students, but everyone.”

You can hear all of Cooper’s thoughts here in a four-part discussion that will run over the next several days. Check back here for all of the episodes.

See also: The best phone to buy for 2021 


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