by Richard Lovegrove
Ted Rappaport has a vision. What he sees—with Virginia Tech's Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group (MPRG) and its graduates leading the way—is Virginia' s version of Silicon Valley nestled in the New River area. Except this would be a "wireless valley," fueled by industries dedicated to items such as Dick Tracy-like wrist communicators, more dependable portable telephones, and wireless computers.
Rappaport knows his dream is going to come true somewhere. To support that contention, he points tomarketing studies predicting the consumer wireless communication sector will be a $100-bil1ion business by the late 1990s. Somt: experts predict that by 2020, half of the information sent anywhere in the world will involve wireless communications. That figure is less than a few percent now.
The National Science Foundation also sees potential for wireless communications. Recently, it made wireless personal communications a research emphasis within its computer, information science, and engineering directorate—a designation similar to an athlete being tagged a future hall-of-famner during his rookie season.
And Rappaport would seem to have good reason to believe Virginia Tech could help lead the way. In less than three years, MPRG, operating out of the Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering has attracted $2.5 million in funding and ranks as the largest university lab of its kind in the nation. Its graduates are landing jobs with wireless-research-starved industry giants such as AT&T Bell Laboratories and BNR, which is the biggest manufacturer of telephone switches in the world. And Virginia Tech's annual wireless communications symposium attracts experts from around the world.
"We're probably the largest provider of students who are entering these (wireless research and development) roles," Rappaport says. "We're on the ground floor of a high-growth area."
Rappaport has won his own share of accolades since coming to Blacksburg in 1988. He earned the Marconi Young Scientist Award in 1991; was the youngest of 31 people named a Radio Club of America fellow in 1990; and in 1992 won NSF's prestigious Presidential Faculty Fellow Award, which goes to distinguished young scholars and carries a $500,000 grant.
While Rappaport is pleased with the awards and the attention they bring to his program and its students, he remains self- effacing about some things. Asked about the success of MPRG, he pushes praise toward colleagues Brian Woerner, Jeff Reed, and Prab Koushik, and to the students themselves. "The students have gotten the lab going," Rappaport says. "I'm just kind of a cheerleader." Faced with the bewilderment of an outsider trying to understand the work of the lab, Rappaport jokes, "It's pretty easy stuff, or I wouldn't be doing it."
So just what is this "easy stuff" he is doing?
The communications industry is ready to expand the world of mobile radio. But the technology remains hampered by crude, expensive, and time-consuming methods of determining what will happen to a radio wave as it bounces through the atmosphere. Telephone signals travel predictably because they follow the lines that transmit them. Radio waves, however, do not follow a set route. "Where does radio energy go?" Rappaport says. "This knowledge is vital if they're (the companies) going to design these systems.
"Our goal is to learn how to communicate with wire-line quality over mobile radio. That's a formidable task."
MPRG attacks the task in various ways. In an approach never tried before, one project takes satellite photos of terrain and buildings and then uses new types of computer models to figure out where radio waves will go when towers and antennas are placed in different positions. "That's most exciting to me," Rappaport says. "We have the potential of automating, in minutes, radio systems that take years to install and adjust today."
MPRG started from scratch. Rappaport knocked on doors looking for research dollars, and then used large chunks of the money he found to upgrade to the high-powered computers he needed for the lab's work. As a result, his students have made "some fundamental breakthroughs in the area," the type of stuff, he says, that eventually will become part of core courses in any electrical engineering curriculum.
State budget cuts, the space shortage at Virginia Tech, and public fulminations over the time professors put into research have caused problems beyond the difficulties of figuring out the vagaries of radio signals. For instance, Rappaport and his colleagues want to expand the lab, but there's no space. At the same time, other universities with room and money are starting their own labs.
Rappaport also has problems balancing teaching, research, and finding funds to support graduate students and staff. Although he requires little sleep, the days still are not long enough.
For America to be competitive, universities have to be breeding grounds," he says, of product-oriented research. He points out that MPRG keeps 30 people--students, faculty members, and others--working in a field that will contribute billions to the economy.
All of which brings a conversation with Rappaport back to his vision--turning the Blacksburg area into an international wireless valley. He already has his own test equipment manufacturing and consulting business, which his wife runs and some of his students work for. He also envisions a campus building dedicated to wireless communications research, and plans to submit a proposal to the state to designate the lab a technology development center. Rappaport pushes his dreams aggressively.
"It's not a matter of if it's going to happen, but when. We're really on the ground floor of a whole new world in communications. There's reason to be intense ... Virginia Tech graduate students are going to be the leaders in this area."
Radio signals Rappaport's pathby Richard Lovegrove
Ted Rappaport came home from baseball practice one day during his senior year in high school to find everything he owned blowing across the front yard. His parents had kicked him out of the house.
"They would say I was rebellious, and I would say they were irrational," says Rappaport in trying to explain what led to that day when he collected his belongings and stuffed them into his car. "My childhood was a lesson in survival."
Faced with making it on their own at such a young age, some teenagers would have turned to drugs, crime, or a pointless nomadic life. In fact, Rappaport was a nomad for the next several months--living in his car or spending time with the families of friends. But then he finished high school, won a college scholarship, earned three degrees at Purdue University, and came to Virginia Tech, where he has won acclaim as a top expert in wireless communications. He credits his success to God's grace and his fascination with ham radio.
"When things were bad at home, I had this huge community of friends across the world (through ham radio)," Rappaport says. "And I've always felt that God watched over me. I look back at my childhood and know there's no other explanation."
Rappaport quickly adds that his parents were not "monsters." He speaks to them regularly, and he credits them with teaching him lessons that benefit him today, including the ability to work hard, to communicate effectively, and to be "up front" about his feelings and concerns.
Rappaport was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but moved a lot before ending up in Indiana. Ham radio entered his life at age 14 when his grandmother bought him one after he fractured his leg playing football and was confined to a body cast for six months. He earned his ham radio license, started experimenting with antennas, and by high school was teaching electronic theory and Morse code to adults. It was his ham radio contacts who housed him after the break with his parents. "I had wonderful role models in these families," Rappaport says.
When high school ended, Rappaport was torn between studying psychology at Indiana University or electrical engineering at Purdue University. He sold his car, packed his belongings in two boxes, and hitchhiked to Purdue. He had a scholarship, but still had to work cleaning dorm garbage cans, co-oping with Magnavox, and stints with the campus radio station. Wireless remained a constant. He joined the ham radio club at Purdue, and even now maintains friendships and professional contacts from that time.
Rappaport met his wife Brenda his sophomore year. He was struggling with calculus and she was an agricultural engineer who knew more about triple integrals than he did. "I knew she was the woman I was going to marry," he says with a grin. They wed before his senior year, and their first child, Matthew, was born before Rappaport graduated. Natalie came along while he was in graduate school, and Jennifer was born in Blacksburg.
At times during his graduate years, the family was surviving on as little as $3,500 a year. "Brenda wouldn't let us go on welfare," Rappaport says. "I'd say 'But Brenda, I'm going to be a solid citizen some day.'"
But the memories are good. When Rappaport worked summers in Florida, the whole family loaded everything into a Delta 88 and headed south. They slept on air mattresses, used boxes for tables, and couldn't afford the luxury of television. "It was a really great experience," Rappaport says.
Rappaport finished his doctorate in 1987. During the trips to Florida, the Rappaports had grown fond of the scenic Mid-Atlantic states, so he looked at the University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina, N.C. State University, and Virginia Tech, the latter because he was floored by the number of electrical engineering courses offered and the world-class faculty members. He sent letters to all four schools, and Tech was the only one to reply. Everything came together. "The faculty here were so nice and supportive ... unlike anything I'd ever seen. That really showed through during the interview trip," Rappaport says.
Since his arrival in Blacksburg, Rappaport has founded the Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group, and his colleagues and students have helped Virginia Tech earn recognition as a leader in the field. He has started his own business, coached youth sports, and remains devoted to religious life. It's a busy life, and one that might have turned out quite differently if not for radio. "I'm really committed to the field of radio because it has had a large and positive impact on my life."
Richard Lovegrove is a senior writer in the publications department.
Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 15, Number 3 Spring 1993