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The Little Engine that Did

Microwave Bypass Systems & the Start of Fixed Wireless Access

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I was a floundering 25-year-old microwave reseller in 1986, working from my post-college apartment, which still resembled a dorm. The sales cycle was long and after nine months I had nothing. Not a single customer; not even a hot prospect. My financial backing was pulling the plug and as I edited my resume and glumly resolved to look for a real job, little did I know that my business was about to take off.

 

Before I became a broke entrepreneur, I was topping the sales charts at MCI Communications. Today, the company is largely unknown, but they set off a telecom industry Big Bang—David and Goliath like—breaking up the world's most powerful monopoly, AT&T, in a historic lawsuit. Seemingly at once, thousands of new businesses emerged. 

 

I knew nothing about microwave at the time, except that MCI used it for their backbone. Radio vendors were shipping their first enterprise model radios (18 & 23GHz, 4-8 T1s) and quick math showed that they could save thousands a month versus leased cable (T1s). The solution was referred to as "microwave bypassing" and after reading and hearing more about it, I determined to get into that business and registered the name, "Microwave Bypass Systems, Inc." 

 

Months later, I convinced a local radio vendor (M/A COM) to set me up as a reseller, fronting me $700 a week for six-months so I could leave MCI. I reasoned that all it would take was a single link order, based on my 35% discount, and they'd have their money back. Not to mention, they had no marketing presence around Boston, so having me knock on a ton of doors had to be worth something. 

My boss, Dave, thought it was reckless to quit a good job to sell a highly technical solution I knew nothing about. He had a point, but as I saw it, I had a rare, no-risk opportunity to start my own business. If I could sell leased lines, I could sell microwave, and whatever I needed to know, I could learn from M/A Com. Besides, if it all blew up in my face, Dave would take me back. 

For marketing, I mailed flyers advertising point-to-point backhaul, installed for a one-time cost and fully guaranteed. Payback was so good it didn't seem legal. Customer interest seemed promising, but no one was buying. To my relief, M/A Com extended my weekly checks, but I was on a short leash and let's just say, sh*t was getting tense. 

 

Something wasn't adding up, and finally I realized that a speedy payback couldn't compensate for the fear customers had that "bypassing" their carrier—even a little—might trigger some catastrophic blowback. Carriers only fueled customer apprehension, warning about liability and lawsuits over radiation exposure.

 

My situation became abundantly clear. If I kept trying to sell T1 radios, I would die. 

 

Finally by chance, the world's first URL owner, Symbolics, Inc, responded to my mailers. They had just gone public, had money to burn and wanted the best bandwidth at any cost. They had huge needs, involving two hops and twelve radios. Moreover, it combined voice (T2), broadcast quality video and a proprietary Token Ring interface. It was the first wireless configuration of its kind and interesting enough that DataPro Research wrote about it in this report

I thought the Token Ring part of the job was super interesting, but my roommate worked at Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) where they were pushing a competing standard, Ethernet. Between the two, I became convinced that Ethernet would emerge the dominant one.

Ethernet users were a different breed; mainly universities, tech firms, research centers and hospitals. Their priority was to tap networks for research opportunities. Far from fearing the wrath of carriers, they loved to tweak them. 

 

Jacked up on insights and enthusiasm, I lobbied radio vendors to get into the Ethernet business, but they dismissed it as a niche. If anything, they were right about market timing, but I was young and their rejection spurred me to develop the solution myself. Frank Miani, a senior RF tech I worked with at M/A Com, let me know that I was on the right track and he believed enough in what I was doing to leave M/A Com after twenty years to lead the effort. 

 

It all seemed to hinge on me getting the LAN engineer that designed Symbolics's Token Ring interfaces to build us an Ethernet equivalent. Then Frank could make the necessary radio modifications for our interface and we'd be good to go. 

 

It wasn't a hard sale. Weeks later, I gave that engineer—code named "Henry"—a $25,000 down payment, from the $130,000 I had in the bank from Symbolics. If I was careful, I’d have enough money for two prototypes and twenty-five finished units. 

The three of us worked like a relay race. Frank started at 6 a.m. and was gone by noon. The LAN engineer, who we called “Henry”, had a day job and could only work from 7 p.m. to midnight. I shuttled back and forth between the two, encouraging, pushing, prodding, begging and occasionally being useful.

Henry's part was by far the most challenging—there were no chip sets for anything—and there were times that brought him to the brink, where he worried out loud that he might not come through. Each time, I’d race to his house to learn more and Henry would launch into a stream of analogies where bits of data became water and buckets or buses and trains, where a lay person with a good head might take a stab at things. We’d bat around thoughts until the answer sparked in Henry's mind and those moments were ecstasy. 

 

R&D was on a shoestring, so Frank snuck in back doors at M/A Com to use test equipment we couldn't afford. Boston University was helpful as well, allowing us to test across their network on weekends, which solved the problem of test equipment not being able to generate random data. I conducted the tests, communicating results to Henry, who couldn't be seen with us without risking that his employer might sue for design rights to our "EtherWave Transceiver". 

 

Remarkably, nine months into development, we had our first EtherWave prototypes and not a moment too soon for a beta test I arranged at Mass General Hospital. I invited IT managers from Harvard and Boston University to witness the test, along with Laura DiDio, a reporter from Network World. Laura's been a friend ever since, and we laugh when I remind her what she told me on the day of our test. She was the only one who wasn't nervous and it was because, as she said, if we failed, she would still have a good story. 

 

The radios for our test came from International Microwave, who was still burning them in on the eve of our demo. Afraid for them to be shipped, I drove them back to Boston and carried them like eggs.

Our test connected a terminal to a server across a data center floor, no antennas, just waveguide, and between our EtherWave and the customer’s network was a DEC bridge, the first such device to hit the market [see product sheet]. I had no clue what was happening as our customer, Dave Murphy, went back and forth pinging machines. Frank kept ducking out to smoke and Henry of course, couldn’t be there. The shame of it was that he and my inquisitive customer would have hit it off famously, whereas I was a disappointing noob as a stand-in.

Our test succeeded in demonstrating that packets of various sizes, burst rates and protocols traveled seamlessly across the microwave connection—spanning a few yards of air—and that our EtherWave was compatible with the hospital’s bridge and network platform. [Check out this testimonial from Boston University's network manager]. It was game on from there and weeks later, we had our first purchase orders; two 10Mbps links for Mass General and one to connect Boston University to Harvard.

 

Our early clients were all network gurus, including at MIT, Princeton and UC Berkeley. They knew more than we ever would and there was no hiding the fact. Yet, we had the solution they needed. Regional networks were springing up everywhere, institutions were eager to be connected and fiber, if it could be had, cost millions. By contrast, our solution met the full 10Mbps Ethernet rate, had a 90-day turnaround (pending FCC licensing) and costa mere $35,000, installed.

In its time, Microwave Bypass developed the first fixed wireless tech platform—network interfaces, bridges and radios—type accepted the first LAN radios, collaborated with Cisco, partnered with Motorola and empowered applications from distance learning to telemedicine.  We brought the earliest internet access to hundreds of world-leading universities, hospitals, tech firms and research centers, across 46-states and half a dozen countries.

 

We had a terrific ride, but ultimately, wireless backhaul died as a value proposition. Fiber totally took over, scoffing at wireless bandwidth and promising all the resilience in the world. 100% SLAs everywhere.

 

Meanwhile, fixed wireless reemerged, packaged for residential consumers, and I covered that period as a consultant and analyst until 2016. I promoted advancements in massive MIMO, beamforming and horn antennas, railed against 5G marketing and warned—as I still do— about commoditization and "the race to the bottom." 

Today, I’m co-founder of Climate Resilient Internet, LLC, sharing a new vision for fixed wireless, one that should exponentially grow our industry. It’s about hardened internet access for mission critical operations—business and government—where failure isn’t an option. Think of it as lifeboats for the internet.

 

We're developing a resilience certification as a new value proposition for providers; a premier service that’s all about quality and criticality, never lowest price. And forget answering all the same questions and skepticism about fixed wireless. Certification speaks for itself and asks only, “Do you want to be resilient or not?”

Resilience isn’t perfect, just like seatbelts don’t save everyone, yet the difference it will make in healthcare and public safety, corporate and national security environments will raise awareness that you don’t have to lose critical data during in an extreme weather event. Then, my friends, we'll see a demand like we have never seen before, because no one in a position of responsibility will want to lose the internet on their watch.

 

You don’t have to believe in climate change. Others do at the highest levels of business and government and while they’re investing upwards of a trillion dollars on climate resilience and mitigation, we’re here to tell them that it’s not going to help them without access to mission critical internet and cloud data. 

CRI's Resilience Certification is based on a breakthrough new Standard for extreme weather, drafted in collaboration with industry leaders across a wide spectrum of disciplines. All input is welcome. For more on that, email me

I hope you enjoyed this story. Enterprise was once a terrific business for fixed wireless and I believe we're about to bring that back, exponentially. Reach out if you'd like to join us. 

 

David Theodore

August, 2022