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Cable broadband pioneer wins Marconi Prize

Tue, 06/19/2012 - 3:03pm
Brian Santo

Henry SamueliBroadcom co-founder Henry Samueli won the 2012 Marconi Society Prize and Fellowship for advances in analog and mixed-signal circuitry leading to the development of the cable modem.

Broadcom built on its success in the cable market to expand into other broadband segments, such as Ethernet networking and wireless communications.

The Marconi Prize, awarded by the Marconi Society, is given each year to one or more scientists and engineers who – like radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi – achieve advances in communications and information technology for the social, economic and cultural development of all humanity.

Samueli said his career was inspired by an assignment to build a radio in his seventh-grade shop class.

"I wasn't surprised it worked – I'm sort of a perfectionist – but I had no idea how it worked," he said. "At that moment, it became my mission in life to find out how radios worked. By the time I received my Ph.D. in electrical engineering, I finally did understand it."

Samueli earned his Ph.D. degree (in 1980) in electrical engineering and took a job at TRW (which later merged with Northrop Grumman), working on military broadband communication systems.

He soon also began teaching part-time at UCLA, and in 1985, Samueli joined the UCLA faculty full-time as an assistant professor.

In August 1991, Samueli and Henry T. Nicholas, III, his former colleague at TRW and his first Ph.D. student at UCLA, each invested $5,000 and launched Broadcom out of Nicholas' Redondo Beach garage.

Their first major commercial customer was Scientific Atlanta, which needed chips for an experimental digital cable TV set-top box. They quickly delivered an affordable chipset (re-engineered into a single chip 10 months later) for the world's first commercially deployed digital cable TV receiver.

Scientific Atlanta and Broadcom announced a strategic partnership in 1994 to develop digital TV technology – a watershed moment for Samueli and his fledgling company, which then had just 24 employees.

Their next big success leveraged Samueli's digital signal processing (DSP) expertise. Competing for a chance at 3Com's Ethernet business, Broadcom claimed it could create a 100BaseT4 Fast Ethernet chip using DSP techniques rather than purely analog approaches previously in use. No one believed them, but Broadcom delivered a working solution in just one year.

Broadcom would subsequently become the first semiconductor company to enable DOCSIS.

On his selection for the Marconi Prize, Samueli said: "I'm very humbled. I look at the list of Marconi Fellows preceding me and think, 'I don't belong in that group.' It is an amazing honor, and I'm deeply flattered. On the other hand, looking at it more broadly, as a company we have indeed accomplished a lot. I'm very proud of the impact we have had on our industry and on society."

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