Wi-LAN sees green light in gridlocked market

After years of research, a decade of development and a certain amount of financial upheaval, Wi-LAN Inc. says its fixed-wireless network gear is ready for corporate Canada. The question is, are Canadians ready for Wi-LAN’s wares?

The Calgary-based network equipment manufacturer spent the ’90s perfecting its technology, paying particular attention to wideband orthagonal frequency division multiplexing (WOFDM), which essentially bounces wireless transmissions to their destinations.

Wireless signals in high-speed environments normally require a clear line of sight between the transmission tower and receiver. But with buildings, hills and trees in the wild, it’s difficult to attain an unencumbered view. WOFDM accounts for these obstacles, so data makes its way despite line-of-sight interruptions. Wi-LAN claims the technology affords solid-state broadband connections without wires, offering throughput north of 190Mbps.

“I think Canada is ideal for this kind of technology,” said Dr. Sayed-Amar El-Hamamsy, Wi-LAN’s chief operating officer. He pointed out that Canada throws up many obstacles – consider how our small population and large geography spells a poor business case for carriers – making it difficult for telcos to lay broadband infrastructure beyond urban centres.

But Canadians in outlying areas still want broadband, El-Hamamsy said. Since it’s cheaper to erect towers than dig tunnels in rock, “wireless is the most effective way of reaching those people.”

Wi-LAN targets carriers and enterprises. For the enterprise, the AWE 120-58 Ultima3 series provides 12Mbps throughput over 75 km in point-to-point configurations and 72Mbps over 16 km in point-to-multipoint configurations.

Wi-LAN says it has the right technology, but is its timing all wrong? Carriers are cutting back on network expansions and upgrades; enterprises are chopping their budgets, so many plans for wireless, wide-area links of the sort Wi-LAN offers are not on the table.

Wi-LAN laid off approximately 130 people in 2001. Its executives took a pay-cut. The CEO took over the dual role of president and CEO, all the while accepting a diluted salary. Is Wi-LAN struggling?

“It may seem so,” said El-Hamamsy, but despite the setbacks, the company is doing well, he insisted. Even in the face of an IT downturn, Wi-LAN has erected a number of “key” wireless networks, he said, including an untethered infrastructure for the Northern Lights School Division in Bonnyville, Alta. Here Wi-LAN Ethernet bridges connect erstwhile-stranded schools across a 9,500 sq. km swath of land.

Thanks to such homegrown wins and certain contracts elsewhere, “the health of the company is actually very good,” El-Hamamsy said.

But Mark Quigley, an analyst with The Yankee Group Canada in Ottawa, said Wi-LAN faces an uphill battle among average enterprises in this country. Most companies hold headquarters in urban areas, where competition among carriers is fierce. The telcos already service urban-based businesses with wires, so companies seeking inter-campus links and broadband connections will find what they need.

“[Wi-LAN has] to deal with…a number of entrenched players that already have fibre running up to the buildings,” Quigley said, describing how AT&T Canada Inc., Telus Corp. and Bell Canada already have in place the requisite infrastructure.

El-Hamamsy admitted it’s “a little bit harder” to entice the average enterprise to buy Wi-LAN equipment. As far as he’s concerned, Wi-LAN’s best bet for success lies outside of downtown areas, where wireless ISPs might want to erect towers and bring broadband to the outlying masses.

Despite his skepticism, Quigley was optimistic about the firm’s future. Carriers might turn to WOFDM technology to provide connectivity where laying cable isn’t economically viable, he said, adding that Wi-LAN’s wireless technology provides an inexpensive, high-speed last-mile option beyond urban hubs.

That’s the experience of one Northern Lights. “The best we could do at a lot of our sites was single 56Kbps Centrex lines,” said Dennis Kurek, director of technical services with the outfit. He added that the wireline infrastructure would have cost four times as much as the Wi-LAN equipment the school ultimately opted for.

Quigley said Wi-LAN’s prospects improve outside of North America. In China, for instance, carriers are making “the great leap forward,” he said, “from very little network deployment to super-network deployment.”

Wi-LAN is talking to China’s carriers, El-Hamamsy said, adding that the company might branch out into mobile – as opposed to fixed – wireless technology in the future.

“I think the fixed-wireless technology out today will be the basis of 4G,” he said, describing how WOFDM will support the fast, wireless download speeds expected from mobile systems beyond the third (3G) iteration.

For the time being, however, Wi-LAN faces its share of trouble. It’s still in the process of chasing down another Canadian wireless gear maker for patent infringement (El-Hamamsy said Wi-LAN would not disclose details). And it’s still struggling for profitability: in the third quarter Wi-LAN’s revenues were down six per cent compared to the previous three months and down 23 per cent year over year.

Quigley said the firm’s problems are par for the course – and assuming Wi-LAN stays on track, its innovative technology should lay the groundwork for some success, despite the anti-IT sentiment plaguing North America these days.

“For any company exploring new opportunities, it’s not a great place to be,” Quigley said of companies like Wi-LAN. “The key is just surviving and getting to the other side of the tunnel.”