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Cell phones can play vital role in health and in narrowing the 'digital divide,' says electronics leader Irwin Jacobs

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What can you do with your cell phone? Almost anything, according to Irwin M. Jacobs '54, B.E.E. '56, co-founder and chairman of QUALCOMM Inc. They can download videos, make financial transactions and monitor blood sugar. Even in a remote village in India, "farmers are using cell phones to find out what seeds to plant and [to] sell their crops directly to the buyers without the middlemen," said Jacobs.

Jacobs returned to Cornell Nov. 7 as the 27th Robert S. Hatfield Fellow in Economic Education to talk on "The Incredible Cell Phone: Personal Notes on an Evolving Technology, Business Model, Applications and Global Impact" in David L. Call Alumni Auditorium.

In the 1980s, Jacobs transformed Code Division Multiple Access from a strictly military technology to an accepted commercial technology that became the basis for all third-generation cellular systems. In 1985, he founded QUALCOMM, which now reaps some $7 billion in annual revenue by licensing intellectual property and developing and selling the chips that power cellular phones. It is a Fortune and Forbes 500 Company, and for eight consecutive years has been ranked one of Fortune's "100 Best Companies to Work For." His co-authored text, "Principles of Communication Engineering," has been cited in over 600 journal articles and remains in use today.

Jacobs said he came to Cornell to study hotel management in 1952 because his high school guidance counselor told him that "there is absolutely no future in science or engineering." But he switched to electrical engineering in his sophomore year anyway and went on to earn M.S. and Sc.D. degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After 13 years of an "interesting intellectual life," teaching theory at MIT and the University of California-San Diego, Jacobs co-founded his first company, Linkabit, in 1969.

He sold the consulting company in 1980, but found himself unsuited for early retirement, so went on to launch QUALCOMM. "There was no specific business plan, no products at start and, therefore, no venture capital," Jacobs said, reflecting on the early days at QUALCOMM. "But nothing really happens in the time frame that you think it will. If you wake up four, five times a week with a new idea, you have to keep approaching it; eventually you can get it across."

Now there are 12,000 employees at QUALCOMM. With the enhanced computing power of cell phones, Jacobs says there are a lot more opportunities in the mobile business.

"There is a rapid convergence of consumer electronics and cell phones; video can get delivered on your handset. You can download music, take care of financial transactions and even use your cell phone as a camcorder," he said.

More importantly, the "diabetes phone" with a glucose monitor, the phone that can monitor cardiac activity and other new innovations have brought health into digital communications. "There are also a whole range of capabilities to educate citizens globally to narrow the digital divide," Jacobs said. He illustrated the idea of using satellite stations and cellular stations to enhance public health and education in remote areas with pictures from countries that are part of QUALCOMM's "Wireless Reach Initiative" in developing countries.

Jacobs and his wife, Joan Jacobs '54, have been named among the top 25 philanthropists by Business Week magazine in 2005. Longtime Cornell benefactors, they recently announced a $30 million scholarship and fellowship endowment for Cornell's College of Engineering, the largest gift pledged to date specifically for scholarships in Cornell's recently announced $4 billion campaign.

Graduate student Zheng Yang is a writer intern at the Cornell Chronicle.

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