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The Austin American-Statesman, Page E1: "UT recruits a star to put a shine on its engineering program"

By Kirk Ladendorf

September 2, 2002

Ted Rappaport is a man in a hurry, even at lunch. Between bites of chicken enchiladas at Guero's on South Congress Avenue, he talks excitedly about his plans to help create a wireless research powerhouse at the University of Texas' College of Engineering.

He can't stay long at lunch, however, because he has to participate in a panel discussion at National Instruments Corp.'s NI Week trade show at the Austin Convention Center in an hour. By the way, he asks, what's the best way to get from here to the convention center?

Despite his newcomer's lack of familiarity with Austin geography and his frenetic schedule, Rappaport is no absent-minded professor. The energetic and youthful looking 41-year-old is the research star that UT recruited to push it into the big leagues in wireless.

Rappaport heads the newly created Wireless Networking and Communications Group within the College of Engineering that will focus on some generations of wireless communications, everything from advanced antenna design to signal processing, network architecture and security.

The researcher already has done this once -- at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, also known as Virginia Tech. With a little help from his friends, colleagues and students, he built Tech's wireless research program into a national leader.

Now Rappaport gets to do it again in Austin, in a bigger arena with potentially more industry help and what he thinks will be a broader impact on the local economy. UT clearly wants to build on the engineering school's solid reputation; it's already ranked in the top 10 nationally. And UT's move into wireless may help Austin attract more wireless companies to town.

"He is one of the best people in the world in wireless communications research and teaching," says Ben Streetman, dean of the College of Engineering. "It was a major coup for the university to be able to recruit him."

When it wants to, UT can recruit academic and research superstars with an intensity that almost matches the attention paid to star football players. Rappaport may not cross the goal line at Royal- Memorial Stadium, but he will score for the university in other ways -- helping to attract other top-notch researchers and students; bolstering the school's reputation; and bringing in millions of dollars of corporate money to support more research that will, in turn, further burnish the school's reputation.

UT offered Rappaport a $1 million recruitment package that supports renovating the fourth floor of the Engineering Science building to accommodate research work, buying initial laboratory equipment, moving costs and other research startup costs.

Rappaport also was awarded the William and Bettye Nowlin endowed chair in engineering. The estimated $90,000-a-year income from the endowment will supplement his salary, allowing him to pay stipends to graduate students doing research and to pay for professional travel. With the endowment, Rappaport is expected to earn about $150,000 for the school year.

Rappaport has bigger dreams than simply bolstering the university's engineering program. He says that UT can become a catalyst that stimulates lots of growth in wireless technology development among Austin and Texas companies. He talks about the future of wireless with an evangelist's zeal.

Not every industry observer agrees with Rappaport's nearly boundless optimism. Some more cautious analysts say the enormous expense involved in building advanced wireless networks raises questions about just what sort of advanced services and capabilities customers will want to pay for. But Rappaport is untroubled by those sorts of doubts. He believes the wireless revolution is just getting going.

Rappaport is joined by three promising young wireless researchers who are assistant engineering professors: Robert Heath Jr. and Jeff Andrews from Stanford and Sanjay Shakkottai from the University of Illinois. They are teaming with eight other professors at the engineering school already doing wireless research. "This is kind of like a startup adventure," Rappaport says, nearly bubbling over with enthusiasm.

"All four of us new guys are sitting on the fourth floor of the Engineering Science building. We are just getting started. We are figuring out how to navigate through the UT maze. We are having a ball. There is going to be lots of fun and excitement happening on that fourth floor."

Already, hotshot engineering graduate students from India, China, South Korea and the United States are calling and e-mailing UT to see whether they can join the program.

While the newly arrived researchers plan research projects, Rappaport is lining up business allies.

The Private Sector

Motorola Inc.'s Austin-based semiconductor business, Texas Instruments Inc. and SBC Communications Technology Resources Inc. have agreed to support the wireless program, committing about $200,000 each to Rappaport's new research center. And Metrowerks Inc., Motorola's independent software subsidiary, has just signed on for its own sponsorship.

Rappaport expects to announce more corporate sponsors within a few weeks.

He also plans to start a wireless research symposium in October 2003 that will showcase UT research in the field and bring in experts from around the world.

And that's just the start.

"In the next couple of years, it is not inconceivable that we will have 20 to 25 wireless companies actively involved as major industry partners," he says.

Rappaport believes that UT's expected ascension as a wireless research center will spark local business growth. "I really think we can do great things in Austin," Rappaport says. "It has such potential to be a world-class wireless town. If you look at what happened in San Diego with Qualcomm Inc., it became a wireless town in the last decade. Austin has that same potential."

Those who worked with him at Virginia Tech expect Rappaport to make an impact in Texas. In Virginia, Rappaport worked closely with a few dozen wireless companies to build a pioneering research program. Funding for the program grew quickly, reaching $2.5 million a year just three years after the program got going.

Among the inventions to come out of the Virginia Tech program was CellScope, a device that can be used to find a specific phone in use on a cellular network.

The device has been used to find numerous high-tech criminals, including Kevin Mitnick, a well-known computer hacker who was tracked down in Raleigh, N.C., in 1995.

While driving the research program in Virginia, Rappaport contributed to about 200 technical papers and to 15 books, including a wireless textbook. He has started two companies, one of which has moved to Austin, and has 25 issued or pending patents.

"Ted is always excited about what he is doing and always bringing that passion to his research and the students he works with," said Brian Woerner, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who worked with Rappaport for more than a decade.

"The resources that will be available to him in Austin are outstanding," Woerner said. "He will have the chance to build something special there."

Unlike some academics, Rappaport is gifted at reaching out to industry to enlist financial support.

Since coming to Austin, he already has visited National Instruments, which is establishing ties to the wireless industry, wireless chip maker Silicon Laboratories Inc., and Metrowerks, the Motorola software subsidiary that plans to play an important role in the development of new software programs to run on smart wireless phones.

Leaving Virginia wasn't easy, Rappaport says. He helped build a world-class research program in his 14 years there. And he and his wife, Brenda, had recently completed their dream house with a panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

But UT offered the chance to play on a larger stage.

"I felt that, if I didn't take the chance, I would always regret it," he says. "I felt this was the chance to come in and do something big in a big place. And that is appealing."

The Next Generation

UT's wireless team will push for development of an advanced generation of very-high-speed wireless networks that will push far beyond the capabilities of today's Internet-enabled wireless services. Those new networks will enable new classes of very powerful, very portable remote computing devices, he says. Full- motion video images, still largely a pipe dream with today's networks and devices, eventually will become commonplace.

The wireless industry is huge. Worldwide sales of cellular phones run about 400 million a year. But despite the heady growth, Rappaport says wireless technology is still in its infancy, and its social impact is still evolving.

"Wireless is just as revolutionary as pencil and paper were," he says.

Can Rappaport's presence at UT be potent enough to bring new business to town?

"He can make a difference," says economic development consultant Angelos Angelou, who likes the researcher's savvy in wooing corporate support.

"It puts Austin on the map," says Fred Chang, president of SBC's Technology Resources research lab, who cautions that economic development efforts don't happen overnight. Chang's company is among those that have welcomed Rappaport with open arms and wallets.

"Ted is a very good guy. He has an almost boyish enthusiasm about what he does," Chang says. "He is a world-class professional researcher. And his graduate students are real treasures, as far as we are concerned."

His arrival in town boosts the stature of UT's wireless work, says Fred Shlapak, president of Motorola's Austin-based semiconductor business.

"The world is going wireless and Motorola fully supports the plans for the wireless networking center at UT," Shlapak said. "We look forward to working with Professor Rappaport to ensure this wireless lab is world-class."

While Rappaport is laying great plans, he also is taking care of the basics.

He has plans to revise the curriculum for students who want to concentrate on wireless. And he is talking about finding ways to get UT's brightest engineering undergraduates to stay here for graduate school rather than going off to places such as Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

A week before classes started, he was attending a seminar on how to use computers more effectively in classroom teaching. He will teach one class this fall, a graduate course in digital communications.

The press of his UT commitments is such that Rappaport has little time these days to spend with the startup company he founded, Wireless Valley Communications Inc., which also moved from Virginia to Austin.

The 7-employee company, run by several of Rappaport's former graduate students, moved to Austin before it knew whether the professor would relocate here.

Company President Roger Skidmore decided Wireless Valley needed to be closer to an established technology center than it was in Blacksburg, Va. The company's researchers checked out Dallas as a possible location before choosing Austin.

If Rappaport's vision is on target, the relocated startup could be one among many young wireless companies that set up shop in town.