The Quiet Revolutionary Andrew Viterbi, a Former War Refugee, Changed the Way We All Communicate
“You say you want a revolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world ”
, Lyrics from the Beatles’ song “Revolution”
n the 1950s and ’60s, Elvis and the Beatles changed the course of rock ‘n’ roll , one shook his hips while the others sang of a revolution.
Although not as well known as the King, or John, Paul, George and Ringo, Andrew Viterbi is helping lead another kind of revolution , the personal wireless communications revolution.
Viterbi is co-founder and vice chairman of Qualcomm, Inc., the multibillion-dollar telecommunications company located in the heart of San Diego’s Sorrento Valley.
Qualcomm is now virtually a household name when it comes to wireless phones. But Viterbi’s tech fame began way before his Qualcomm days.
This is his story.
Born in 1935 to a Jewish and Italian couple in Bergamo, Italy, Viterbi’s family arrived in New York on Aug. 27, 1939, three days before World War II broke out in Europe.
“We were refugees,” Viterbi says. “If we stayed in Italy we would have been fried in incinerators.”
Viterbi mentions his father was able to obtain a visa to come to America since he was a physician. Boston would become the Viterbi home in 1941. For Viterbi, it was a great place to spend his youth.
“I was very lucky. I went to the best public school,” he says about Boston Latin School, a junior high and high school. “It was a great experience academically.”
After high school, Viterbi went on to another prestigious school , the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“For an engineering school it was very advanced in teaching mathematics,” says Viterbi, whose passion to be an engineer began at the age of 10.
Viterbi’s father encouraged him to be a chemical engineer. But Viterbi found electrical engineering more interesting.
As a teen, Viterbi worked as a messenger and a soda jerk. Attending MIT on an academic scholarship, he cleaned the dorms during the summer to make extra cash.
Viterbi also got involved in the MIT Cooperative Electrical Engineering Program, which sent him to Raytheon Co. to work and study. Viterbi has created a similar program at Qualcomm, which now includes a dozen MIT students.
In 1957, after receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, Viterbi came to California to become a member of the communications research section of the California Institute of Technology Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It was there Viterbi helped launch the nation’s first communications satellite, Explorer I.
“JPL was very advanced,” he says. “I was in an office with two mathematicians and a Ph.D.”
Viterbi would earn his Ph.D. from USC in 1962.
In 1963, Viterbi decided to spread some of his experience and knowledge to aspiring engineers, and began teaching at the UCLA School of Engineering and Applied Science.
“I love teaching. The way you learn the most is by teaching others.”
During his 10 years at UCLA, Viterbi did fundamental work in digital communication theory and wrote several research papers and two internationally recognized books.
Chuck Wheatley, then a Ph.D. candidate, was one of Viterbi’s students. Wheatley said Viterbi was touted as an expert in the field of communication theory.
“He was kind of intimidating so we had to work really hard to get it right,” Wheatley recalls. “He had an appearance of a tough professor. But I found out later on that he was a really nice guy.”
Wheatley and Viterbi would connect again a few years later.
The Viterbi Decoder
Through his teaching and research, Viterbi came up with what became known as the Viterbi Decoder. Used in satellite communications, sophisticated wireless communications and magnetic recording, the Viterbi Decoder helps ensure a signal “mirrors” the transmitted signal.
The device was the impetus for Linkabit Corp., a digital communications company launched in 1968 by Viterbi, fellow UCLA professor Len Kleinrock, and Irwin Jacobs, then a professor at UCSD. The small tech firm, which became the grandfather of many San Diego tech companies, started in a former dental office on the edge of the UCLA campus.
Linkabit was relocated to San Diego in 1970.
In 1973, Viterbi left UCLA and joined Linkabit full-time. He would continue teaching part-time at UCSD.
The Viterbi Decoder was finally built in 1974.
“What it meant was that for space you could take the same space probe and go out twice as far. Or you could launch a satellite that was one-fourth the weight. In military communications, it typically tripled the speed at which it could transmit.”
In 1980, M-A-Com in Boston made Viterbi and his Linkabit partners an offer they couldn’t refuse. Linkabit was purchased for $25 million.
Five years later Viterbi and his colleagues “parted company” with M-A-Com, which didn’t feel secure with commercial customers.
They left without any particular goal, but it didn’t take long to start up again.
In July 1985, they launched Qualcomm, a developer of mobile satellite communications and digital wireless telephony.
“Initially we thought it would be a part-time job, this Qualcomm,” Viterbi says.
But as many know, Qualcomm has since outgrown the small office it once occupied by a pizza joint in La Jolla.
Not long after its launch, Qualcomm was approached by a company called Omninet that had this idea about developing satellite communications for trucks.
Today, 300,000 trucks around the globe use what is now the Omnitracks system.
Satellite communications for trucks was not Qualcomm’s only star technology.
In 1989, after much research, Qualcomm came out with its first demo of Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) cell phone technology.
“A lot of people said, ‘That’s interesting but it looks complicated,'” Viterbi says.
Qualcomm had a more successful demo the following year.
But the industry, until 1993, wasn’t ready to accept CDMA as a standard, Viterbi says.
“We had a big debate with the naysayers.”
“I think we won the debate.”
By the summer of 1993, CDMA had been accepted as an industry standard.
For Viterbi, the possibilities for CDMA and wireless communications are endless.
He has helped develop one of Qualcomm’s newest technology projects , High Data Rate (HDR), a versatile wireless technology that promises quick, affordable access to the Internet anywhere, anytime.
“It’s very hot. Are there naysayers? Of course, there are naysayers,” Viterbi says, smiling. “The only question is, it’s not a standard yet. But we’ve been there and we have an awful lot of allies and a lot of people depending on this technology to get access to the Internet.
“We have gained a lot of credibility over the last decade.”
Viterbi also has earned a good reputation in the industry.
Just ask Wheatley, a former Linkabit engineer and now senior vice president of technology for Qualcomm.
“I travel around the world a lot,” he says. “If I happen to mention I work for Qualcomm, people will say, ‘Do you know Dr. Viterbi?,’ and I say, ‘He’s my boss.’ They say, ‘Oh, really?’ In Asia, someone will even ask him for his autograph or to sign one of his books.”
When asked if he considers himself a tekkie or a businessman, Viterbi replies, “For sure the tekkie side is what I find more interesting.”
Many in the industry would label him a stellar businessman too.
As a member of the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee, Viterbi pushes technology education and research. He says the government should spend more money on fundamental technology research.
“Companies can’t afford research that will yield results 10 years out. Shareholders won’t allow it,” the 64-year-old Viterbi says. “The future is going to be who is cleverest at developing new products and marketing them. I think we’re good at it but so are other countries.”
As for the future of wireless communications, the mere mention of it excites Viterbi.
“There’s been a dramatic change in the way people communicate with each other,” he says. “We’re very close to the point where the number of cell phones will exceed the number of land lines, and eventually your whole way of using your phone is going to change.”
Title: Co-founder and vice chairman of Qualcomm
Education: B.S., master’s degree in electrical engineering, MIT; Ph.D., USC
Birthplace: Bergamo, Italy
Residence: La Jolla
Family: Wife, Erna; two sons and a daughter
Hobbies: Music, snow skiing and reading