About Arlene Harris
Innovator & Inventor
Top 10 Wireless Innovators of All Time
~Fierce Wireless - Nov 08
A serial entrepreneur Arlene Harris was literally born into the wireless business. She invented numerous wireless innovations; including the first over-the-air remotely programmable wireless phones, the first prepaid wireless management system, and is the founder of the senior-focused GreatCall wireless service. Those inventions and others, earned Harris the distinction, “the First Lady of Wireless.”
Harris was born in rural Los Angeles on June 6, 1948, to Dolores and Homer Harris, an electrical contractor and then communications entrepreneur. In the early 1950s, her parents started Industrial Communications Systems (ICS), a business to provide car radiophone service, where the twelve-year-old Harris trained to be a mobile operator. At the time, operators were required to operate these nascent wireless networks. Only they knew when calls were completed by listening in, so Harris heard customer conversations, legal and illicit, from movie stars, tow truck operators, mobile news crews, pimps, and lawyers. This gave her a unique insight into the world of business at a young age. Harris also had a radiophone in her own car when she was just fifteen years old, so she could work school vacations, holidays and weekend graveyard shifts on the mobile switchboard in South Central Los Angeles.
Her work experience largely substituted for a formal education, especially since Harris suffered from an undiagnosed reading disorder that eliminated college as a possibility. She ended up going to work for the airlines when she was just eighteen years old. First, she worked for Air Canada in L.A. and then for Continental Airlines in passenger services for Military Air Transport during the Vietnam War and later for Air Micronesia flights in Honolulu.
The Birth of a Tech Career
In 1969, back in Los Angeles, and thanks to a little on-the-job training, Harris helped Continental plan and build the first databases for automated ticketing systems. At the time, the airlines anticipated higher demand due to the arrival of wide body 747s and DC10s. The new computer systems helped move passengers through airports faster with higher reliability. When the ticketing systems were ready, she provided testing and training to agents for these first computerized systems that are still in use today. Harris also built an early screen driven user experience for all passenger service personnel and built and maintained IBM’s first comprehensive Direct Reference System data base.
In 1972, Harris returned to her family business, ICS. ICS had entered the first high-capacity wireless business selling an early beeper – the Motorola Pageboy II, developed by Marty Cooper at Motorola. A year later, Cooper led the development of the first cellular portable phone. Seven years later, Harris met Cooper, and the pair married in 1991.
Harris' Entrepreneurial Drive
Both Harris and her family knew the paging business required automation. Thanks to her airline systems experience and the help of a uniquely talented software engineer, over the next decade, Harris and her family built the largest single-city paging operation in the world. Working with her parents, Harris developed ICS’s systems; that managed the wireless industry’s first resale business, automated the provisioning of wireless networks, and for the first time, provided automated remote self-help systems to large commercial customers. ICS’s success in increasing new user adoption prompted the FCC to mandate the company’s business strategy as part of the original cellular spectrum allocations in 1982.
In 1981, under Harris’ guidance, ICS developed Life Page, the first consumer wireless health application service for organ transplant recipients and their families. The Harrises sold ICS to Metromedia in 1983, the year that cellular became commercial. It is now USA Mobility.
Harris moved to Chicago in 1983 where, with Cooper, she co-founded Cellular Business Systems Inc. (CBSI) It was sold to Cincinnati Bell and is now Netcracker, a cellular billing and customer management system that would eventually service about 80 percent of the non-wireline cellular market. While leading CBSI, Harris served on a three-person FCC and then EIA committee that developed the Cellular Inter-carrier Billing Exchange Record (CIBER), which defined the intersystem roaming data transfer protocols to enable roaming services.
Between 1983 and 1986, Harris founded and co-founded three more companies: Subscriber Computing Inc. (SCI), Cellular Pay Phone Inc. (CPPI) and, with Cooper, their incubator, Dyna LLC.
SCI built the first networked automated provisioning systems now used by nearly all cellular retail channels and the first early theft abatement systems for the cellular industry. She worked in conjunction with OKI Electronics and Motorola, to create the first “mobile app” – an over-the-air application-specific cellular phone and billing and management system, Cellular Pay Phone. Although having had several patentable innovations at ICS, Harris applied and received her first two patents for the payphone systems that were later licensed to GTE Mobilnet, now Verizon Wireless.
At SCI, in 1991 she stimulated and directed the development of her most impactful achievement pioneering - the first pre-paid cellular phone systems. Before prepaid service, more than half of cellular applicants were turned away as credit unworthy. By combining provisioning with real-time usage tracking, carrier risk of nonpayment was mitigated. Prepaid services were adopted around the globe resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars in revenues eventually delivering better technology-enabled solutions to thousands of companies and billions of consumers. SCI was sold to Corsair and is now part of Verisign.
In 1994, Harris introduced SOS Wireless, a “safety phone” aimed at baby boomers and seniors that provided one-button access to emergency contacts and services. After starting SOS and developing other patented technologies including the first over-the-air website-controlled phone management capabilities, in 2004, Cooper introduced Harris to Samsung mobile division President KT Lee. After a single meeting Lee, who loved the notion of reaching the underserved senior market, agreed to make Harris two custom phone models.
GreatCall and Jitterbug
In 2006, Harris, bought a wireless carrier and created Assessable Wireless, a carrier that gave her access to a large national wireless roaming footprint, and then created a technology that for the first time enabled local telephone number assignments for a nationwide network. She successfully launched the company, GreatCall and the Jitterbug service. The Jitterbug service used Harris’ specially designed Samsung-made Jitterbug phones.
Jitterbug was named one of The New York Times' top 10 tech ideas of 2006, was a finalist at Last Gadget Standing at CES 2007, earned a spot in Reader's Digest's “Top 100 Products,” was awarded the CTIA’s Andrew Seybold Choice Award for “Best New Company” in 2007 and the American Society on Aging's Award for “Best Small Business in 2008.” GreatCall boasted nearly a million subscribers by 2017 when it was sold to a Chicago-based private equity company and in 2018 they sold it to BestBuy to become the foundation of Best Buys connected health program.
Ms. Harris holds several patents, is the recipient of many awards and honors, and has served on several boards and committees in the public and private sectors, including: the FCC (Federal Communications Commission); TIA (Telecommunications Industry Association); and the PCIA Foundation (now the Wireless Infrastructure Association - WIA). The government associations direct the industry standards and specifications. Harris received the PCIA Foundation’s Distinguished Chairman's Award and won industry-wide acclaim when she became the first female inductee into the Wireless Hall of Fame in 2007, as well as in 2018 when she became one of only a few women inducted into the Consumer Technology Hall of Fame. The Illinois Institute of Technology awarded Harris an Honorary Degree in 2021.
Harris is advisor to the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering and Illinois Institute of Technology Schools of Business and Institute of Design. Harris received the UCSD Gordon Center Engineering Leadership Award, is a Fellow in the Radio Club of America, was honored with a coveted Stevie Award, received an ATHENA Award, the Girl Scouts Cool Woman Award, and a Top 10 Wireless Innovator of All Time designation, among many other awards. Harris, along with Cooper, is founder and CEO of Dyna, LLC. Dyna incubates insightful, innovative, relevant technology solutions that benefit society. She is working on her next initiatives: Wrethink, a unique new category in the world of technology – a comprehensive secure family management platform and ecosystem; and Wrethinking, The Foundation - to support underserved technology founders who are working on solving important problems. Wrethinking has financed and spun off the Me2BAlliance, another non-profit dedicated to the provision of Respectful Technology.