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Wireless Innovator Andrea Goldsmith Is First Woman to Win the Marconi Prize

By The Marconi Society

April 30, 2020

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The Marconi Society has awarded the 2020 Marconi Prize to Andrea Goldsmith for her pioneering contributions to the theory and practice of adaptive wireless communications.  She is the first woman to win the award in the 45 years that it has been given.

Goldsmith's technical innovations that have shaped the fundamental performance of cellular and Wi-Fi networks, combined with her leadership to radically improve diversity and inclusion in engineering, have changed both the consumer experience and the profession.

"Andrea has enabled billions of consumers around the world to enjoy fast and reliable wireless service, as well as applications such as video streaming and autonomous vehicles that require stable network performance," says Vint Cerf, chair of the Marconi Society and 1998 Marconi Fellow.  "As the Stephen Harris Professor of Engineering at Stanford University, Andrea's personal work and that of the many engineers who she has mentored have had a global impact on wireless networking."

The Marconi Prize is the flagship award of the Marconi Society, given annually to innovators who have made significant contributions to increasing digital inclusivity through the advancement of information and communications technology. 

Goldsmith has been shattering silicon ceilings in engineering for decades and is an influential voice in creating an inclusive profession.  As the first woman to be President of the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Information Theory Society, to win the IEEE Eric E. Sumner Award for outstanding contributions to communications technology, and the IEEE Communications Society Armstrong Technical Achievement Award, Goldsmith has made it a priority to create opportunities for highly qualified women and to help under-represented groups compete on an equal playing field.

Goldsmith is donating her $100,000 Marconi Prize to the Marconi Society to start an endowment that will fund technology and diversity initiatives.

"I am so deeply honored and humbled to become a Marconi Fellow. The Marconi Fellows are my professional heroes and the people I have looked up to my entire career for their immense impact on the communications technologies we have today," Goldsmith says. "The honor is particularly meaningful to me at this moment in time, when our information and communications technologies are enabling our universities, companies, and the entire social ecosystem to function in a suddenly all-online world, as well as calling attention to the critical importance of digital inclusion. The value of connectivity could not be more apparent."

Goldsmith's breakthrough contributions center on adaptive modulation.  In the early 1990's when Goldsmith started her work, and even today, networks are subject to fluctuations in capacity.  These fluctuations can arise from a variety of factors including movement, such as walking with a phone, being inside a building, or varying amounts of network usage at any given time.  When data is sent at a constant speed during these fluctuations in network capacity, calls drop, screens freeze, and other disruptions occur. 

The adaptive modulation techniques that Goldsmith discovered let network designers match the speed at which data is sent with the speed the channel can support as network conditions and channel quality change.  This research, implemented through both her entrepreneurial efforts and detailed descriptions that enabled network engineers around the world to leverage her findings, has influenced nearly every major cellular and Wi-Fi network in the world.

Broad Interests

Goldsmith, the daughter of a mechanical engineer and a cartoonist for the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, entered college with a broad set of interests.  She started engineering school at the University of California at Berkeley with the philosophy that it would be easier to transfer out of engineering than to transfer in. 

Faced with a highly competitive environment and an undercurrent of subtle bias about whether women were really cut out for math and science, Goldsmith was on the brink of leaving engineering when she met an inspiring female teaching assistant who became a much-needed role model.

Goldsmith graduated in 1986 when the first cellular networks were just being built.  She worked at a small defense communications startup in Silicon Valley where many of her colleagues had advanced degrees.  She realized that in order to solve the kinds of hard communications problems that she was passionate about, she would need to deepen her knowledge through graduate school.

Goldsmith's break-out work happened during her Ph.D. thesis at UC Berkeley when she became intrigued by understanding the fundamental limits of wireless networks and how to design them to perform close to these theoretical limits.  This began the integration of theory and practice that became the hallmark of Goldsmith's innovations.

Goldsmith was the first to determine the maximum data rate, or Shannon capacity, of time-varying wireless channels at a time when wireless system design was focused on fixed-rate voice communication.  Goldsmith then created her first adaptive modulation and coding technique to achieve network performance close to the theoretical limit.  All Wi-Fi and cellular networks today use this technique to deliver reliable performance at the maximum possible speed that the network can support.

That work has never been more important, as the network has become a lifeline for work, shopping, socializing, and entertainment.

Goldsmith co-founded two successful companies based on her research.  Under her leadership as Chief Technology Officer, Quantenna Communications was the first to enable multiple HDTV video streams within a home,  enabling consumers around the world to enjoy multiple shows and events at once.  She later co-founded Plume to deliver high-performance home Wi-Fi mesh networks that  support intelligent home applications such as parental controls and both physical and cyber security.

Setting the Bar

Just as she does for wireless network performance, Goldsmith sets the bar high for the engineering profession as a whole.  

"The challenges engineers undertake and the solutions they develop are most impactful when they incorporate a broad set of perspectives," Goldsmith says.  "Data shows that women and other under-represented groups in engineering do not have the same opportunities and recognition as others in industry and academia.  This hurts our ability to recruit and retain diverse engineers, and hence to identify and solve the most important problems."

She has held a number of positions with the IEEE focused on diversity and inclusion, most recently as Chair of the organization's Ad Hoc Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Ethics.  Through her leadership and influence, the IEEE adopted its first-ever diversity statement and awarded five women with medals and technical field awards, the IEEE's most important honors.

"Andrea is part of a small group that completely changed the face of the IEEE Communications and Information Theory Societies through technical excellence coupled with an inclusive attitude that allowed others more junior to see role models and flourish in their own right," says Christopher Rose, IEEE Fellow, Professor of Engineering and Associate Dean of the Faculty at Brown University's School of Engineering.  "I can honestly say that I would not feel as much a part of either community were it not for Andrea's bold leadership."

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