The technology at the centre of a deal between crown research institute Industrial Research and a group of Texan investors is yet another wireless data transmission variant.
It is called orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM), which Industrial Research attempted to interest New Zealand investors in before taking its ideas overseas for commercialisation.
Industrial Research (IRL) “brainstormed” a large number of names of local companies that would potentially share the funding and risk of developing the new technology, claimed to offer improved transmission speeds and coverage over wireless links between computers or other office equipment, says IRL business opportunities manager Wendy Macdonald.
Three representatives then sent a detailed business plan to several of the most promising candidates, and visited them. But all eventually turned the offer down. Some already had tie-ups with overseas developers, Macdonald says. Some wanted access to a developed technology and were not prepared to put significant funding into development of a less than completely mature platform. And some, by contrast, had their own internal research facilities and were unwilling to collaborate with IRL “because of the well-known ‘not invented here’ syndrome”.
Rights to the technology have now been licensed to Texas-based OFDM Wireless, a joint venture of IRL and two Texan investors. “I can put my hand on my heart and say we looked very hard for New Zealand partners,” Macdonald says. IRL, she adds, has hopes of bringing the technology back to New Zealand, through the foundation of a local arm of OFDM Wireless. If this happened, it would be at the end of the “series A funding” stage, between 18 months and two years into the future.
Wireless LAN and MAN (metropolitan area network) technologies and products exist already, Macdonald acknowledges. Vodafone, for example, has released the Wireless Office platform, based on the IEEE 802.2b standard, but this has a top capacity of only 11Mbit/s channel speed, and in practice only about 5Mbit/s. “We feel our technology gives not only faster transmission but increased coverage and reliability and reduced manufacturing cost,” Macdonald says.
OFDM technology allows signals to be sent simultaneously in overlapping bands of spectrum, which do not interfere because the carrier waves are phased differently (orthogonally). This allows a large amount of data capacity to be “packed” into a relatively small spectral bandwidth. To date it has been used in military applications — “secret squirrel stuff”, says IRL technical specialist Alan Coulson — and in one-way broadcasting, but standards, the US IEEE 802.11a and the European Hiperlan2, have now been established for two-way LAN communication. This provides theoretical channel speeds of up to 54Mbit/s. “In practical terms, that’s about 30,” Coulson says, so OFDM has “achieved the holy grail” of a wireless link faster than standard 10Mbit/s wire or fibre ethernet.
IRL has added three components, says Coulson: a media access control (MAC) protocol for administering quality of service (QoS) parameters, allowing traffic to be prioritised; new radio receiver algorithms for increased reliability and performance; and a deployment strategy developed with the University of Auckland, where input on the shape of rooms and the building materials is interpreted to give the best location for "base stations" in the complex.
On the QoS side, Coulson says, IRL anticipated some of the standards subsequently incorporated in Hiperlan, and hence has a start on development to those standards.
Macdonald suggests the technology can already be extended from an office environment to a MAN, offering a potential solution to the "last mile" for rural broadband communication. Coulson declines to go quite that far, but points out that an OFDM MAN standard, 802.16, is in draft at IEEE. Realistically, he says, a final standard is "a couple of years away".