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Today's cellular communications industry would not be what it is without the
contributions made by Richard H. Frenkiel and Joel S. Engel, former employees
of AT&T's Bell Laboratories.
Engel grew up in New York State and received his bachelor's degree in engineering
from the City College of New York in 1957.
He went on to earn a master's degree from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology and a PhD from the Polytechnic
Institute of Brooklyn. Frenkiel, a native of Brooklyn, earned a bachelor's
degree in engineering from Tufts University
and completed his master's degree at Rutgers
University in 1965.
In 1962, both Engel and Frenkiel were working for Bell Labs in New Jersey
where they began what would be a fruitful partnership. At the time, only a few
hundred people in a typical city had car phones. Few conversations could happen
at one time, due to a lack of free radio channels. Channels were constantly
busy because only about a dozen customers could use a system at one time, and
waiting lists were long.
Working with a team of nearly 200 Bell Lab engineers, Engel and Frenkiel developed
a concept that multiplied the capacity of each channel by 1,000. Their system
divided cities up into small coverage areas called cells. A land-based network
tracked cars (or other mobile units) within cells and switched calls from cell
to cell as the unit moved. With this system, Frenkiel and Engel shaped the basic
cellular system architecture and solved complex problems such as how cellular
systems locate vehicles and hand off calls from cell to cell as vehicles move.
Engel and Frenkiel's work led to a series of proposals to the Federal
Communications Commission (FCC) in the 1970s and became the foundation for
the cellular systems which have revolutionized mobile communications and made
today's convenient cellular services readily available. Frenkiel has said that
it is difficult for him to take as much credit as he has been given for his
work on cellular technology, insisting that it was all a "team effort." Said
Frenkiel, "It is hard for any one person to seem like he is responsible for
anything. As I said, hundreds of people were working on it in my company alone."
Nevertheless, in 1987, Frenkiel was awarded the Alexander Graham Bell Medal
of the IEEE "for exceptional contributions to the advancement of telecommunications,"
along with his partner, Engel. In 1994, the pair received National Medals of
Technology from President Clinton.
Following the proposals to the FCC, Frenkiel went on to lead the team of Bell
Labs engineers who wrote specifications for and refined the cellular system
architecture, reported on system tests to the FCC, and helped plan the first
wave of cellular systems for deployment in the early 1980s. In addition, Frenkiel
holds the patent for the "underlaid cell" concept, which simplified the process
of adding smaller cells to a system as more customers demand service. Frenkiel
retired from AT&T in 1993 and today he works as an industry consultant, teacher
and writer in New Jersey.
Meanwhile, Engel is credited with having provided the research required to
focus the optimization of system parameters and characterize cellular capacity
sufficiently to arrive at federal rules and regulations for standardization
and use. He left Bell Labs in 1983 to become vice president of research and
development for MCI and from 1987 to 1997 he
served as Ameritech's vice president of technology. Today, Engel is president
of JSE Consulting, an Armonk, New
York company that provides technical guidance to telecommunications equipment
suppliers and due diligence to venture capitalists. The results of Engel's and
Frenkiel's efforts continue to have great impact on society: today there are
more than 19 million cellular users in the U.S., with 17,000 new subscribers
signing up every day.