Interview with Siavash Alamouti: ECE Alumnus, Communications Changemaker, and Marconi Prize Winner

“We must provide people with equal access to information and knowledge, [and] I’ve made it a mission for myself to use technology to achieve this goal.”

UBC Electrical and Computer Engineering alumnus Siavash Alamouti is a recognized innovator and leader in wireless communications and the cloud. If you’ve studied wireless systems, his name might be familiar; he’s the inventor of the famous Alamouti code, a milestone solution in mobile signal reception technology that’s included in billions of devices around the globe.

Siavash has been a leader and researcher at multiple top companies including AT&T, Intel, and Vodafone. He’s been on the cutting edge of communications technology for many years, and was instrumental in the development of 5G and LTE standards worldwide. Siavash is now working towards the decentralization and democratization of the cloud and personal data use. Influenced by his background in activism and his experience of the Iranian cultural revolution, he’s a dedicated advocate for technological solutions that prioritize the rights and needs of their users.

Since his time at ECE, Siavash has believed strongly in the potential of wireless innovation to improve people’s lives.  In recognition of his impact on the accessibility of wireless devices, Siavash has been awarded the 2022 Marconi Prize, the top honor in information and communications (ICT) technology. This prize (whose past winners include World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and Google co-founders Lawrence E. Page and Sergey Brin), is awarded to ICT innovators who have made a significant contribution to increasing digital inclusivity. Siavash’s award recognizes his dedication to the power of wireless technology as a democratizing force.

We spoke to Siavash about his work and this significant recognition. In this interview, he discusses his long and varied career, his time at UBC, and the insights and inspirations that lie behind his work on wireless technology and decentralized cloud infrastructure.

How did your career begin, and how did you get from there to where you are now?

I’ve had a rather unusual career path because of my life circumstances. My career started very early when I was 17, as a young entrepreneur with a small fashion brand in Tehran, before the 1979 Iranian revolution. After the hijacking of the revolution by Muslim fundamentalists, I was expelled from my university, went underground, and worked selling English encyclopedias and other books. I escaped Iran in 1982 and entered Spain as a political refugee. I attended university in Madrid and worked as an English tutor, an Avon salesperson, and even sold cigarettes and gum in concert venues. When I moved to Vancouver, I worked various jobs, including pizza delivery and waiting tables for a couple of restaurants. My career as an engineer started with contract work for a company called Mobile Data International (MDI) while I was completing my master’s degree at UBC. I then took a leave of absence from the Ph.D. program at UBC to join Microtel Pacific Research (MPR Teltech) as a Member of Technical Staff.

MPR Teltech was the research arm of BC Telephone Company (now Telus), which was later broken up into various companies. It was a pioneering company that was building mobile data protocols such as Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD). There, I participated in the physical and MAC layer design of this mobile data protocol, which provided 19.2 Kbits/sec of data through cellular base stations. In 1995, I moved to Redmond, Washington to join McCaw Cellular, which was later acquired by AT&T and became AT&T Wireless Services. I invented the Alamouti Code while I was there, but was very skeptical about the multi-billion-dollar project we were working on. I blew the whistle, was demoted, and left in 1998 to join Cadence Design Systems in Milpitas California. While at Cadence, I worked as an application engineer building Electronic Design Automation (EDA) libraries for 3G and WiFi chips.

In 2001, I joined a startup called Vivato, based in San Francisco and Spokane, Washington- initially as the R&D Director and eventually as the CTO. Vivato was the first smart antenna WiFi company to build a WiFi access point with 2 km of range. I left Vivato in 2004 to join Intel as the CTO of the Mobile Wireless Group, where shortly after I became an Intel Fellow. This is where I worked on Mobile WiMAX, with the goal of creating an open cellular standard. This work was highly influential on 4G LTE technology, which adopted OFDM/MIMO technology that was significantly superior to the old 3G technology and less burdened with royalty costs. While I was at Intel, I also championed the formation of WiGig Alliance to use mmWave technology for Gigabit wireless communications.

In 2010, I joined Vodafone as Group R&D Director and moved to London, where we envisioned many non-traditional new services for the largest global mobile operator at the time: remote patient monitoring, elderly care, usage-based insurance, child and pet tracking services, automotive solutions, and the world’s first concept design for an edge gateway. I also oversaw Vodafone’s corporate venture entity and a portfolio of startup companies. In late 2013, I left Vodafone to initially pursue an investment fund for personalization, but I eventually moved back to Vancouver, as my father had been diagnosed with cancer.

In 2014, I joined Disternet, a startup in Vancouver and a portfolio company of Vodafone Ventures, as the CEO. We eventually renamed the company ‘mimik’. At mimik, we built the first hybrid edge cloud platform that enabled any smart device, including smartphones and sensors, to act as cloud servers. In March 2020, I joined Wells Fargo as EVP of R&D while keeping my role as the Executive Chairman of mimik. I was very concerned with the business model of the internet and data privacy, so I agreed to join Wells Fargo when I was approached by Lisa Frazier the Chief Innovation Officer, who is now the Chief Operating Officer at Judo Bank, a digital bank and one of the most successful fintech companies in Australia. I was running R&D and working on a custodianship platform for data and digital assets. I left Wells Fargo in December of 2021 and I’m now working full-time at mimik working on creating a data and digital asset custody platform.

You were a student at UBC Electrical and Computer Engineering. What aspect of your program at ECE did you enjoy the most?

I actually did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees but did not complete my Ph.D. at UBC. Life during my bachelor’s degree was extremely difficult. I had to work and study full-time, and at the same time I was very active politically, fighting against the rising right-wing attacks associated with the rise of the Reform Party, Neo-Nazis, and Fascists in Canada. At the time, one-fifth of the Canadian population had voted for an extreme right-wing party.  My experience in Iran had made me very sensitive to these challenges, and I committed to do my best to stop reactionary political movements. The situation at that time was scary, and coupled with the AIDS crisis, which drove violent anti-gay attacks, serious threats to labor rights, women’s rights, and immigrant and refugee rights, it was a real struggle for me to balance school, work, and political activities.

However, the time during my master’s degree was amazingly rewarding. My supervisor was a very bright young assistant professor called Samir Kallel, who suggested a challenging but visionary project for my master’s thesis. At that time, I was in a better financial position thanks to Samir’s funding and could focus more on my studies, so I spent a lot of time and did great research work on adaptive coding, which influenced my future work that is included in wireless standards we use today. I got to work closely with great people including Eduardo Casas, who was completing his Ph.D. at the time and was one of the pioneering researchers for OFDM, which became the foundational technology for 4G and WiFi, and Professor Cyril Leung, with whom I built a longer-term working relationship while I was at MPR and AT&T. I published my first journal paper based on my master’s thesis work and planned to continue my research during my Ph.D. but had to take a full-time job to be able to support my parents and siblings and get them out of Iran, so unfortunately, I took a leave of absence from my Ph.D. and never returned.

While I was at UBC, I built my foundations of knowledge around communications theory, math, and computer programming- I owe much of my success to my studies at UBC.

Much of your work has been dedicated to democratizing and improving access to and control of technology for users. Why have you taken this approach, and why is it important to you?

My experience in Iran had shown me that, to protect society against social destruction, we must provide people with equal access to information and knowledge. This is the key to ensuring equal opportunities for all, closing the widening wealth gap and inequalities, fighting superstition, fundamentalism, misinformation, and political manipulation. I’ve made it a mission for myself to use technology to achieve this goal.

You’re currently focusing on decentralization of the cloud and data sovereignty. What are you working on in this area, and what impact do you hope this work will have?

To ensure digital inclusion, we need an affordable, efficient, private, secure, and green internet. Cloud decentralization is essential to achieve this goal. We can create a decentralized cloud infrastructure that is orders of magnitude larger than our central cloud infrastructure today. This will reduce the cost of developing and maintaining applications, will make us less dependent on network infrastructure, reduce latency, reduce carbon footprint, and provide individuals greater control over their data. It has been a challenging but extremely rewarding endeavor for me, my colleagues at mimik, and our partners because this will ultimately help make the internet more private, affordable, and greener for everyone.

As for data sovereignty it has become increasingly clear that we must change the overwhelmingly ad-driven business model of the internet and give the control of personal data back to individuals. I’ve been mostly focused on the custodianship of data and digital assets in the last couple of years and I hope to make some contributions in this area in the future.

A lot of our undergrad and grad students here at ECE are hoping to enter the industry to work on wireless systems, or the cloud. What would you say to young people who are passionate about these areas and just beginning their careers?

Another important thing I have learned through experience is that starting with the technology and trying to find an application for it seldom results in impactful solutions. I try to always start with defining the result I’m seeking clearly and experiment with various technology solutions to help achieve the result.

A further important learning that may seem obvious, but people seldom have the courage to apply, is to not waste your time working on things that you don’t truly enjoy or have a passion to do. Life is too short. It is foolish to sacrifice the present with the hope of a better and happier future that may never come. The present is the only sure thing and should always be the priority.

Read More from the Marconi Society: “Democratizing Internet Access: 2022 Marconi Prize Awarded to Wireless Innovator Siavash Alamouti”