Father of WiMAX, Prof Arogyaswami Paulraj wins 2014 Marconi Prize

Prof (Emeritus) Arogyaswami Joseph Paulraj also known as father of WiMAX has been awarded the prestigious 2014 Marconi Society Prize.

Paulraj’s idea for using multiple antennas at both the transmitting and receiving stations – which is at the heart of the current high speed Wi-Fi and 4G mobile systems – has revolutionized high speed wireless delivery of multimedia services for billions of people.

“Paul has made profound contributions to wireless technology, and the resulting benefit to mankind is indisputable. Every Wi-Fi router and 4G phone today uses MIMO technology pioneered by him,” says Professor Sir David Payne, chairman, Marconi Society and director, Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton.

“MIMO will soon be pervasive in all wireless devices. Moreover, Paulraj’s work has provided fertile ground for thousands of researchers to explore and advance MIMO’s potential to enhance wireless spectrum efficiency,” added Payne.

Paul’s story is a remarkable one. A native of India, a brilliant and always a top ranking student, he finished high school at 15 and having no career guidance, joined the Indian Navy. He so impressed his superiors that in 1969 the Navy sent him to the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi) for a MS program. His performance there quickly attracted the attention of Prof PV Indiresan, who urged the Navy to allow Paul to enroll in the PhD program.

In 1971, a brief war with Pakistan exposed the shortcomings of the Navy’s sonars leading to the loss of a Naval ship. Paul led a successful project to redesign the sonar adding many new signal processing concepts. Three years later the new technology was widely deployed in the fleet.

After a brief fellowship at Loughborough University UK, the Navy assigned him to lead a much more ambitious project to design an advanced technology sonar. Overcoming difficult circumstances, his team developed a world-class sonar system (APSOH) that was inducted into fleet service in 1983, a stunning achievement in military electronics for India. APSOH to this day ranks among the best sonars in the world.

At Stanford, Paul worked on a multiple signals Directions of Arrival (DOA) estimation problem that had a long history of improvements using a spectrum approach. Paul proposed a totally new method called ESPRIT (Estimation of Signal Parameters via Rotational Invariance Techniques). This led to a mini-revolution spawning more than 1,000 papers and over 50 doctoral dissertations; its applications now go far beyond array signal processing to spectral estimation and to system identification.

Paul returned to India in 1986 and served as the founding director for three major labs in India – CAIR (Center for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics), CDAC (Center for Development of Advanced Computing) and CRL (Central Research Labs of Bharat Electronics). But by 1991, bureaucratic battles began to take their toll and with the consent of the Indian Navy, he returned to the US and Stanford University.

At Stanford, while awaiting a faculty appointment, Paul worked on signal separation experiments for airborne reconnaissance. He noticed something surprising: in presence of scattering, co-channel wireless signals from closely spaced transmit sources were often separable by an adaptive receiver antenna array.

A few days later, sitting in a barber shop, he had an idea for increasing throughput in wireless systems using multiple transmit and receive antennas (MIMO – Multiple Input, Multiple Output). Paul applied for an U.S, patent titled “Distributed Transmit – Directional Receive DTDR” (with his then supervisor Prof. Kailath as co-inventor) in Feb. 1992 and the patent was granted in September, 1994.

“When I stumbled upon the concept and potential of MIMO spatial multiplexing in 1991 I was troubled that such a simple idea might indeed not be original. Some years later, I discovered that Dr Marconi had similar sentiments in 1895 when he first demonstrated wireless telegraphy,” says Paul.

He need not have worried. The idea was indeed original. Moreover, his attempts to attract interest from the mobile technology companies and funding agencies were met with deep skepticism. His claim that a 1,000,000-QAM system could be built using MIMO when the state-of-art was then 4-QAM engendered disbelief. Now, 20 years later, the MIMO-based 802.11ac Wi-Fi supports 16,000,000-QAM.

Undaunted by the skepticism about MIMO’s practical feasibility, he took leave from Stanford in 1998 to found Iospan Wireless (initially known as Gigabit Wireless) and built a MIMO based commercial system. Venture firms finally paid attention after he demonstrated a 3×3 MIMO radio he built with his personal funds.

While CDMA access technology was still the mainstay of the wireless industry, Paul pushed for OFDMA as the best access technology for incorporating MIMO. Iospan developed a MIMO-OFDMA based fixed wireless system to offer 4096-QAM with 2 spatial streams. By 2001, Iospan had firmly established that MIMO offers good value in typical cellular applications. Intel acquired Iospan’s technology in 2003, and Paul worked with Intel to develop the WiMAX mobile standards.

In 2004, Paul co-founded Beceem Communications to develop semiconductor solutions and the company emerged as a world leader in WIMAX semiconductors with more than 65 percent market share and it was acquired by Broadcom. In 2006 and the 3GPP standards group also adopted Iospan’s MIMO-OFDMA as the core technology for the 4G mobile standards.

With characteristic modesty, Paul said, “MIMO technology is today embedded in 4G mobile and Wi-Fi. It has taken the effort of thousands of engineers and researchers around the world, many of them truly eminent, to make this happen. My contribution, in comparison, is indeed small.”

Paul remains active, supervising Post-Doc students and serving as a senior adviser to Broadcom. He also maintains close ties to Indian IITs.

Despite having received many awards and honors in the US and India Paul said, “In telecom there are two top recognitions; the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal which has a bias toward theoretical contributions, and the Marconi Prize, which honors contributions that convert breakthrough ideas into products benefiting billions of people. I am incredibly honored to have won both. The Marconi Prize emphasizes service to humanity. It is the highest recognition I can imagine.”

Paul was elected to the US National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 2006, and to several national academies around the world. Notably, his election to US, NAE was just a dozen years after starting a career in wireless research in the US He has also received recognition in India for his work, including the Padma Bhushan, a major national award.

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