Montana State University

Spring 2010

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Mountains and Minds

Richard Wolff helps bring intelligent communications to Montana April 30, 2010 by Michael Becker • Published 04/30/10

Some boys build models or tree houses, but when Montana State University engineering professor Richard Wolff was a kid, he built radios.

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham Gorham

Some boys build models or tree houses, but when Montana State University engineering professor Richard Wolff was a kid, he built radios.

"I liked building things, and building radios was interesting," said Wolff, now a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. "I've always been interested in radio communications, so it permeated my life."

In the years since, Wolff transformed that early fascination with radios into a long career and his position as the College of Engineering's Gilhousen Telecommunications Chair.

As the Gilhousen Chair, Wolff focuses on improving MSU's teaching and research of wireless communications. The chair was created thanks to a $5 million donation in 2001 from Karen and Klein Gilhousen, a founder of Qualcomm Inc. and a pioneer in the wireless field. The Gilhousens' gift pays Wolff's salary and provides funds for undergraduate student scholarships and graduate student tuition stipends as well as research.

"The Gilhousens' generosity allowed us to recruit one of the world's brightest minds in telecommunications to teach and mentor our students," said Robert Marley, dean of the College of Engineering.

Wolff teaches at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, advising master's and doctoral candidates and sponsoring undergraduate research projects. For the past three summers, he has directed a National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which brings students from across the country, especially from small and tribal colleges, to MSU to work on wireless communications.

In addition to his teaching and work on wireless in general, Wolff is tackling a problem specific to Montana: finding ways to give remote and rural areas access to the same communications technologies available in bigger towns and cities.

"There are a large number of wireless users in urban areas of the state, but when you get to the more rural areas, that's where the problem of access becomes significant," Wolff said.

Wolff grew up in post-war Pasadena, Calif., during what was probably the best possible time for a person to get interested in radios and radio waves.

"There was a lot of radio equipment you could pick up very inexpensively as war surplus," he said.

Wolff learned how to build transistors and crystal diodes by the time he was 10. At 13, he had a ham radio license.

His radio hobby kindled a fascination with physics, and that led him to the University of California, Berkeley, in 1966, where he majored in engineering physics.

From there, his attention was drawn to the atmosphere and astrophysics, and he spent part of his college years measuring X-rays from the stars and the sun.

There's a discovery around every corner, and I'm intrigued by the ways people use technology. I never cease to be amazed by how creative people are.

-Richard Wolff
Wolff later earned his doctorate from Columbia University, where he also spent seven years teaching. His dissertation looked at X-ray emissions from the Crab Nebula, one of the strongest X-ray emitters in the heavens.

After Columbia, Wolff spent 25 years working for Telcordia, Bellcore and Bell Labs, researching everything from radio astronomy and satellites to microwave communications and cellular networks.

"I would characterize my career as a long walk up and down the electromagnetic spectrum," he said.

When Wolff learned of a national search to find MSU's first Gilhousen Chair, he was immediately interested--and not only by the university's mountain setting. The job description seemed an ideal fit for him, and his research about MSU told him it would be a great place to work.

"One thing I felt very good about was the quality of the students and faculty I'd be working with and the overall caliber of the university," he said.

Photo by Kelly GorhamPhoto by Kelly Gorham Gorham

MSU provided Wolff the chance to look into a problem that telecommunications providers have been trying to address for decades. How do you provide service to the relatively few people who live far from buried cables and broadcast towers?

"What makes networks cost-effective is having lots of users, but when you have a very sparse network and few users, the economy of scale doesn't kick in," Wolff said. "You have to find ways to get around that."

The trend toward more "intelligent," less-expensive electronics holds possibilities, Wolff said. Combining wireless communications with advanced computing techniques can overcome the barriers of distance and remoteness, beaming signals in the desired direction using smart antennas, and networks that adapt to the terrain and pick the signal's most efficient path.

The goal is to create smaller, cheaper "nodes" and handheld devices that can communicate with each other, rather than relaying data and messages through big, expensive, centralized equipment.

Providing Internet and cellular service to rural areas is important because when people don't have access, they are shut out of the growing number of government and educational­--not to mention entertainment--resources that are available digitally. A lack of access also makes emergency communications more difficult in remote areas.

"As a nation, we've made some choices along the way. In the 1930s, rural electrification became a federal mandate. The notion that everyone should have access to electricity at a reasonable price was a national priority. We made a similar choice with telephones," he said. "We haven't quite gotten there on the Internet."

Marley said Wolff's energy and commitment to teaching and research haven't wavered since he arrived in Bozeman.

"Richard is a world-class scientist and engineer," Marley said of Wolff, who holds three patents and serves as an editor and senior member at IEEE, the world's largest technology-focused professional society.

"Wolff provides the possibility of having access to streams of information that, until a few years ago, were really only available in large libraries or laboratories," Marley said.

Wireless is one possible solution, but it's not the be-all, end-all solution, Wolff said.

"Wireless has become a part of everyday life, and the recognition that the technology has its limits doesn't come naturally," he said.

But, he said, the relative lack of access in rural areas has created exciting opportunities for research, education and business.

"As we speak, the federal government has launched a new program to enable entrepreneurs in rural areas to set up high speed networks to bridge these gaps," he said. "This is good news for Montana and other rural states."

That said, Wolff is hesitant to predict the changes that future technological advances might bring.

"The best you can say is that the future will not be what you expect," he said. "There's a discovery around every corner, and I'm intrigued by the ways people use technology. I never cease to be amazed by how creative people are."