This month marks the 30th anniversary of fixed wireless IP, so if you wanted an excuse to drink, you're welcome. 🍺 And while you're at it, here's the random and totally obscure story of it, which is more interesting than it sounds.
Fixed wireless was surprisingly advanced in 1987. It met the full 10 Mbps Ethernet rate, conformed 100% to the 802.3 spec and made single-hop distances up to 5-miles. None of this was lost on the market.
Sun Microsystems co-founder, Bill Joy, was so impressed that he put a link at his house, accessing the internet from his lab in Palo Alto. It was the first residential fixed wireless internet connection in the world.
Harvard, MIT and Boston University used fixed wireless for the core of New England's early internet. Mass General Hospital used it for real time MR imaging. Fixed wireless supported the Space Shuttle, earned Smithsonian recognition for K-12 innovation, and provided the first internet hookup for Interop.
All this came from a most unlikely source. A 25-year old Poli Sci major—me—and my bootstrapped startup, Microwave Bypass. And we crushed it. In 1995, the Aberdeen Group wrote [full report]:
"Microwave Bypass Systems is, in Aberdeen's estimation, the unchallenged leader in the Ethernet microwave LAN market with a 75-80% market share."
Grab a coffee and let me tell you about it...
I was 25, and self-conscious about my youth and so I dressed to look older. It hardly helped. My RF tech, Frank, was forty-seven. He was my first hire, and he was so embarrassed to have a boss “half his age” that he was pained to introduce me.
But Frank wanted an income, and I needed an RF consultant for my vision of a wireless IP solution (23GHz licensed microwave). I had just enough money from selling T1 radios and friendly loans, that with the right talent, we could do it.
The fact that I was even thinking about radios and Ethernet was proof that anything was possible.
Three years earlier, I left Boston College with a Poli Sci degree and no plan. My dad was so disappointed that he had chest pains at my commencement. Afterward, I languished hopelessly for months. I sold sketchy airfare packages and subscriptions to the Boston Ballet, walked a seeing eye dog and bundled newspapers in a warehouse. I cut ties to everyone, like a lion going off to die.
Finally, I landed at MCI, selling phone service, and that job saved me. I started with a group of 60, consistently topped the sales charts and rose quickly. I felt a renewed sense of purpose, but corporate shakeups were frequent and unsettling.
One morning a guest speaker gave a talk about “microwave bypass” technology. I was riveted when I learned that payback versus telco was under a year. That day at lunch, I walked across Boston Common and registered a new company name, “Microwave Bypass Systems, Inc.”
Weeks later, a leading radio vendor, M/A COM, accepted my proposal to make me a reseller with a $700 a week draw against future orders. The next day I submitted my resignation.
My boss, Dave, wasn't pleased.
He urged me to reconsider. I didn't know a freaking thing about microwave radio. How am I starting a business in it? Where's the seed money? Who's going to install and service the gear? What about business insurance, and who's going to give me credit? Those were all great questions, which my dad echoed almost verbatim.
Nonetheless, in my first year I had $80K in the bank and kicked off development of the first wireless solution for the burgeoning LAN market.
I drummed up lots of interest in the project. “Communications Week”, “Computer Reseller News”, “DataPro Research”, and “IDG Publications” all covered us, eager to know how our system worked.
Development dragged on longer than expected.
I had a microwave contractor in Connecticut working with Frank on RF mods, and our LAN engineer (contractor), Brad, was brilliant, but he was moonlighting and so work was intermittent and stealthy.
Finally, when it seemed that we had a stable prototype, I grabbed the phone and called Mass General Hospital. It was a mile from my apartment and I had a standing invitation from network manager, Dave Murphy, to come and prove our tech. His interest was piqued by our ad in “Data Communications”:
Mass General was a perfect venue. A two-mile shot across the Charles River with clean line of sight. If my “EtherWave LAN Radio” could be verified there, it would bring us awesome credibility.
I invited Harvard and Boston University to witness the demo, along with Laura DiDio from “Network World”. Laura (now with 451 Research), assured me that she'd write a good piece, and if the demo blew up on us, she'd write a good piece on that too. 😳
Fortunately, our demo was a success and P.O.'s followed from Mass General, Harvard and B.U. MIT ordered a link soon after, and the three universities formed a redundant triangle.
We got a ton of publicity. As a small sampling, here's Laura DiDio's piece in "Network World". "LAN Magazine" gave us a great spread, and I wrote a 5-page feature for "Data Communications".
Bridges added too much to system cost and so we created a more affordable one.
At the time, there was only one bridge on the market, the LAN Bridge 100 by DEC. Customers complained that it was too expensive and so we built our own, the LAN-LINK 1000 [spec sheet]. It did everything DEC's bridge did, only for half the price.
We led Motorola into the business and then built our own radios, giving us more control of price and delivery.
Networks leveraging fixed wireless and fiber? Pundits talk about it like it's new, but we were doing that in the 1990's. Here's one of the greatest medical research networks of its time:
And finally, I was proud that "LAN TIMES" picked us for one of the industry's top contenders for the 1990's:
So, enough for old stories—if you've even gotten this far, but now you know why I'm always pushing fixed wireless. It's in my DNA.
Today, fixed wireless is the hottest tech in telecom, poised to close the digital divide for millions across the U.S., and an estimated 150 million worldwide.
I've waited 30-years to catch the perfect wave, and now it's here.
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