rlene Harris has been connecting people to one another for a long time-ever since she was a child, helping connect calls for her family’s mobile telephone switchboard in the 1950s. Harris has continued to forge connections through communications products as the wireless industry has evolved from its infancy, from her family’s dominant paging business to her current project, the mobile virtual network operator GreatCall Inc. and its Jitterbug service. Harris, often called the first lady of wireless, has seen the industry grow up and says there is still a vast future ahead for wireless-even though its humble beginnings aren’t all that far in the past.
HARRIS’ FAMILY RAN a successful paging business based in Los Angeles at a time when most people didn’t understand the potential benefits of being able to be reached via wireless technology.
A solution for an unknown problem
“We had to learn how to sell paging service. There was no demand for it. You had to describe solutions to a problem that people didn’t really understand that they had until they learned how much better you could make their lives,” Harris recalled. “What paging really did was allow us to develop not only a concept of wireless communication, but how it could affect people’s lives with personal devices.”
Robert Meinzer, a veteran of the paging and cellular business, recalled being a freshly minted mechanical engineer with an MBA entering the wireless industry whose boss immediately told him to go to Harris to learn how to sell a pager.
“I looked to her to help me learn the business from the ground up-operations, billing systems, the whole shebang,” Meinzer recalled. He described Harris as a technologically savvy entrepreneur who has been “a continuing force in the evolution of the industry.”
“She has always been an innovator,” Meinzer said. “She’s always trying to find new and better ways to deliver our products and services.”
Part of that innovation included her family’s work on the Lifepage system, which provided pagers to people waiting for an organ transplant instead of forcing them or a family member to constantly wait by a wireline phone for notification that a suitable organ was available. Lifepage was later expanded by Motorola Inc. and the Personal Communications Industry Association.
“It was really an application that spotlighted the benefit of having portable wireless devices,” Harris said. “Although it doesn’t seem like it today, for years the wireless industry struggled with the notion that people thought these wireless devices were not freedom-letting, but were actually leashes.”
Harris wasn’t limited to paging, however. She has started and run a number of businesses, always touching upon the mobile space, including several billing companies. She started a management systems business with her now-husband, Martin Cooper, which was bought by Cincinnati Bell and was a predecessor to business support company Convergys. Harris also holds several patents related to cellular systems.
In the older American demographic which Harris has chosen for Jitterbug to serve, many potential users still don’t feel a need for wireless service, having done without it for their entire lives. Despite the fact that most wireless companies spurn the low-use, safety-conscious older demographic, Harris has focused on giving them specially designed handsets and a service created to be simple and useful.
“She’s somebody who, when she really believes in something, she’s not going to take no for an answer, and also, she’s not going to give up a lot of what she thinks is important,” said Brian Thompson, current chairman of ComSat and another longtime industry colleague. “She’s very thoughtful, and driven to bring something good to the marketplace.”
“Much of the MVNO space today is very trendy,” Harris said. “And then you have to ask, if I get this trendy kid to buy my phone and service, how long is his lifestyle going to be that lifestyle? What’s going to happen when he gets married and has kids? Is he still going to want that phone?
“What we’ve done at Jitterbug is really a culmination of much of what I learned through my entire life, including my life as a kid working the switchboard at my dad’s business,” Harris said. “All of those experiences have helped me understand what I need to understand in order to make Jitterbug work.”
And, she added, it does seem to be working.
“I’m getting messages from customers every day saying, ‘I’m just so thrilled,'” Harris said. “The whole notion of our business is to be helpful and to be consumer-focused rather than to be technology-focused.”
Harris, with the benefit of a long view on the wireless industry’s growth, says wireless still has plenty of room for continued innovation.
“I really think we’re still in the industry’s infancy,” she said. “Wireless as we think about it today, as being a cellphone, that’s very limiting. We really need to start thinking about wireless as being the transportation of information . and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be something you can carry. It could be something that’s embedded, wireless devices that are doing all sorts of things far more elegantly than they have in the past.
“We really do have to stop thinking about wireless as being this consumer product that you buy at a store and start thinking about it in terms of so many other things that wireless communication can be doing for us as consumers and as business people.”
However, she added, the policies and decisions of the Federal Communications Commission will weigh heavily on how well American companies can compete in the global mobile market.
“Spectrum has always been the fuel of this industry,” Harris said, noting that cycles of consolidation in the industry typically seem to end up with a large duopoly that dwarfs a number of tiny competitors, with influxes of new spectrum offering opportunities to break out with new innovations.
“I believe that now that wireless is a global business, that the method by which we allocate spectrum will dictate whether or not U.S. companies can compete in the global arena,” Harris said. “I think that’s hugely important, and it’s the burden the FCC carries. Their policies will help or hinder our ability to compete globally, and I hope they make the right decisions.”