It was 1985, and though I was only 24, I felt the world passing me by. Tech startups seemed to spring up everywhere and I wanted nothing more than to start my own business and join the ranks of young entrepreneurs, blazing their own trails. How to do it was the question, having no savings, business or engineering experience.
I was at MCI Communications, selling leased lines to corporate accounts, consistently topping the charts, never actually talking about the service I was selling. The job was great, but the company kept restructuring and rumors were making me anxious. If only I had a good business idea...
And then it came, when a guest speaker gave a talk about point-to-point microwave. It had just emerged as a private enterprise solution, more friendly and compact, and it could save businesses tens of thousands a year versus lower quality T1 lines. The fact that it was a higher ticket sale also appealed to me. There had to be more money in that.
I thought of some of my larger accounts, like Texas Instruments, Dunkin' Donuts and Cumberland Farms. They all had remote offices in close proximity and by their phone bills, they couldn't have been better prospects for microwave. Not to mention, no one liked AT&T then, because of their stranglehold on the market.
My head was exploding. Days later, I made a beeline across Boston Common and registered the name "Microwave Bypass Systems, Inc." with the department of corporations.
Weeks later, I was drinking with a M/A COM salesperson, Erik Stromstead, at the 99 Restaurant across the road from his office. M/A COM was the leading microwave radio manufacturer at the time. Erik was an old Yankee, a Harvard grad and gentleman farmer with hundreds of acres, close to retirement. He enjoyed his wine as we talked about tapping my prospects.
Though I still couldn't buy liquor without an ID, Erik suggested that I become a reseller and we talked about how M/A COM might support my efforts. After a few meetings, I floated the proposition that they should advance me a modest weekly draw, $700, to help me fund a "sales office" and that I'd pay them back against my first orders. All it would take it one, I reasoned. To my surprise, Erik didn't balk and he suggested that I draft a proposal for his boss, Frank. Frank vetted me and I set up a sales call, bringing Erik into one of my accounts. Weeks later, Frank had me pitch my proposal to his boss, Fred, and the deal was done.
And so starting a business was as simple as that. The new enterprise consisted of me, a good logo, a prestigious corporate mailing address (rented mail box) , a competent answering service and a leased IBM typewriter.
I couldn't have been more excited, but my enthusiasm waned as my former MCI customers weren't buying. It didn't make sense. Cost savings were insane. I thought that CFO's were obligated to buy if you showed them a one-year payback. Yet what I learned chilled me to the bone. Telecom managers were wholly dependent on AT&T and were deathly afraid of upsetting them.
Still, someone might go for it, I reasoned. I sent out a 1,500 piece mailer, a few hundred a week, and the response seemed encouraging. Yet, more months passed and I still hadn't come close to making a single sale. By month six, M/A COM was ready to cut me off.
Christmas was around the corner and I sat at my kitchen table, dejected. I pulled out my resume and started editing. Days went by, cold and alone in my apartment while my roommates were working actual jobs. It got dark by 4:30 p.m., only fueling my gloom. At last, I resolved that after the New Year, I'd get a job or go crawling back to MCI.
It was then that the phone rang.
It was my answering service. There was a customer inquiry, Rick somebody, from Symbols or whatever in Cambridge (the next town over). I wasn't in the mood. Microwave sales cycles were too long and I was at the end of my rope. I ignored the message.
The answering service called again the next day. It was Rick again from Symbolics and he's getting irritated that no one's getting back to him. (He's irritated? At least he's got a job!) Again, I ignored the call.
Another day passed and with it, another message from Rick. This time he says that if he doesn't see someone from Microwave Bypass by the end of the day, he's tearing up our check. (WHAT CHECK?!)
Finally, I respond to Rick's call and he's not happy. He said he received one of our flyers and saw the site survey quote in there ($3,200) and that he'd already cut a check for it, because he needs a "bunch" of microwave connections to a remote campus and its got to happen ASAP. That afternoon I was in his office. Boy Scout and Christmas stuff everywhere. He's racing around and the whole time I'm thinking about that check, doubting its existence.
We talk about his application. T1s for voice, broadcast quality video for teleconferencing and something about LAN channels. First time I ever heard the term "LAN". Rick thinks he's going to need at least 6-links. His remote campus is 13-miles away and he says there's a tower we might use as a repeater. That's what I needed to scope out.
He tells me to follow him to the reception desk and hands me an envelope. I thank him and tell him I'll get right to work, figuring worse case, I can't put his job together, but it's December 11, Christmas is around the corner and I just bagged $3,200.
That was just the start and there was no keeping up with Rick, who also had the first cell phone I ever saw. While I was looking at topographic maps, he was talking with M/A COM engineers. I was doing the same, talking to Frank Miani, an RF tech who put the system configuration together for me, giving me pricing for every component, cable and connector; even licensing and installation. Meanwhile, I still hadn't approached the one and only repeater prospect, a cable TV operator, and I sweat bullets about whether they'd let us on their tower.
A week had passed since Rick handed me his check and then I get another call from the answering service. Again, Rick says he's got a check for us. He can drop it in the mail or I can come pick it up. I don't know what on earth he's talking about, but I call him right back and he tells me that he has to spend some year end money and so he added up the microwave components that he thought he needed and he remembered that our terms included a 1/3 deposit. He said he can't be there, but he's leaving a check and P.O. at the reception desk.
I raced to Symbolics, not knowing what I'd find. I saw the receptionist and she handed me an envelope. I thanked her and opened it as I walked back to my car. I went right for the check and it was $27,500! That was just the deposit and I had no clue how Rick came up with it or whether I'd even find line of sight, but I was determined to figure it out and not lose that money. And so I got into my car, drove out of the lot and then at a safe distance, opened my window, and in the chill of winter screamed my head off across the entire span of the Longfellow Bridge.
There were more surprises about the Symbolics job.
First, Symbolics was the hottest AI firm at the time and they registered the world's first internet URL. They had just gone public and had huge communications needs, ultimately involving two-hops and twelve radios. The total exceeded $250,000. The other surprise is that their configuration included a proprietary Token Ring interface. It was the first wireless LAN application and it was notable enough that DataPro Research covered it in this report.
First article published on the topic of wireless WAN connectivity, in this case, about microwave radio connecting Token Ring LANs. Early fixed wireless history 1986.
First trade journal article on Microwave Bypass in Communications Week, Sept. 22, 1986 | Start of fixed wireless access.
Microwave Bypass' first full page ad, published in Data Communications Magazine, 1986. Early fixed wireless industry.
Application Profile: Early 10 Mbps Ethernet / IP wireless connection between Harvard and Boston University, 1988.
The Token Ring part of the job seemed super interesting, but my roommate worked at Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) where they were pushing Ethernet. Between the two, I became convinced that Ethernet would emerge the dominant platform.
I couldn't stop thinking about the opportunity for LANs and devoured a DEC manual that demystified the network environment in 180 of the most straightforward pages ever. And I learned that early LAN adopters were a different breed, mainly universities, tech firms, research centers and hospitals. They wanted bandwidth by any means and far from being afraid of AT&T, they liked to tweak them.
Jacked up on insights and enthusiasm, I lobbied M/A COM to develop an Ethernet compatible radio, but they dismissed it as a niche. That killed me because I couldn't go back to beating my head against a wall trying to sell T1 radios. I talked to NEC next and got nowhere.
I was still working with Frank Miani, the systems engineer, assigned to my Symbolics project. I shared my thoughts with him, wondering where I might find an engineer to design an Ethernet to microwave interface. He said look no further, but that he'd try to arrange a meeting with me and the LAN engineer, Brad, who designed the Token Ring interface for Symbolics. He said that if Brad would work for me, Frank could do some moonlighting and make the necessary radio modifications to mate to Brad's box.
Meanwhile, Frank's boss, the executive VP, eyed me with suspicion and started rattling my cage about the money I owed M/A COM. And how was I going to get them to ship radios to Symbolics when I was just a kid with no assets or credit lines? I confidently answered that I had all the orders in hand, Symbolics wasn't going to rewrite them to M/A COM and if M/A COM wanted the opportunity, they'd better extend credit to me or else what was the point of making me a reseller?
The following week I sat across from M/A COM's credit manager and played a good game of hardball. The only way they were getting Symbolics' business was through me. He relented and I breathed a huge sigh of relief after he agreed to ship my entire order.
Meanwhile, M/A COM's EVP (we'll call him Louis) was muscling into my opportunity. He suggested that since he had an MBA from Harvard and I was way over my head, we should reform the company and be partners and he'd secure a round of financing so we could grow a real business. Louis could be charming when he wasn't menacing, and so I started meeting at his house where we drafted a business plan. Everything was fine. He was French, we drank wine and enjoyed collaborating on the business plan until I read his management team write-up where he gave himself 75% of my business.
That was the end of it for me and I said thanks but no thanks, I'd rather take my chances on my own. Louis replied that I was free to do as I wished, so long as I didn't try to take Frank Miani, who he had his own plans for. He warned that if I did, I'd be visited by some nasty friends of his from Montreal.
Soon after, Frank called and let me know that Louis was never going to ship me working systems, but that Frank knew the radios inside and out and could get pretty much anything to work. He said he could also save me money on some components that came with a ridiculous markup, enough to fund his first few months.
It sounded good to me and to my surprise, Frank offered to join me as an independent contractor to oversee Symbolics's installation. It was stunning to me, because Frank had been with M/A COM more than 20-years. Something wasn't right there, but I didn't hesitate to bring Frank on board.
Frank and I continued to meet with Brad about designing an Ethernet to microwave interface and finally I struck a deal with Brad for $75,000; $25,000 up front, $25,000 for a working prototype and $25,000 for the first 25 finished units. The timeline was set at 9-months.
NEARnet microwave WAN backbone, all at 10 Mbps, by fixed wireless pioneer Microwave Bypass.
Article in Data Communications by Microwave Bypass founder, David Theodore, at the start of the fixed wireless industry, July 1991.
First fixed wireless 802.3 Ethernet Microwave Bypass links at MIT, Mass General Hospital, Boston University and Harvard. Feb. 1988
Microwave Bypass Systems' LAN-LINK 1000 data link layer Ethernet bridge. Only the second bridge in the LAN market after DEC's LAN Bridge 100.
The three of us were a motley crew. Frank and Brad didn't have engineering degrees and I was a poli sci major. Frank started at 6 a.m. and was gone by noon. Brad kept his 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.
Brad's part was extremely challenging. Chip sets didn't exist and there were times when he was so hung up on a problem, that it seemed he might throw in the towel. Each time, I’d race to his house to learn more and Brad would launch into a stream of metaphors where packets of data became water and buckets or cars and buses, where a layperson with a good head might take a stab at things. We’d bat around thoughts until the answer sparked in Brad's mind and those moments were ecstasy.
We couldn't afford RF test equipment, so Frank snuck in back doors at M/A Com where he still had friends. Boston University helped as well, letting us test across their network on weekends. That was essential, because test equipment couldn't generate random data. I ran the tests, communicating results to Brad, who couldn't be seen without risk that his employer might go after design rights to my "EtherWave Transceiver".
Meanwhile, I navigated a series of shocks.
Symbolics had SEC problems about their stock filing and the company was tanking. Stock values plummeted. They were looking to claw their money back from the microwave investment and now M/A COM lawyers were calling, threatening to sue for the balance of payment. I wasn't happy with either of their stances and ultimately, Symbolics had bigger problems to deal with and M/A COM lawyers couldn't find my money and so they held off for a couple of years, later settling for pennies on the dollar to bring me back as a reseller.
Remarkably, we stayed on course and nine months into development, we had our first EtherWave Transceiver prototypes and not a moment too soon for a beta test 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. She was the only one who wasn't nervous, because, as she said, even if we failed, she'd still have a good story.
Our radios came modified per our design, by International Microwave, a small Connecticut firm that was still burning them in on the eve of our demo. Afraid of what could happen in shipment, I drove them back to Boston, carrying them like eggs.
Digital News story on Microwave Bypass, fixed wireless innovator, March 19, 1990.
Product sheet and technical specs for Microwave Bypass Systems Etherwave LAN Radio | Fixed wireless innovation, early '90's.
LAN Times story about Microwave Bypass' collaboration with Cisco to extend fixed wireless distances. Early fixed wireless industry.
SI Business interview with Microwave Bypass founder, David Theodore. Early fixed wireless history.
Our demo 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 an Ethernet bridge (by DEC), the first such device to hit the market. I had no clue what was happening as our customer, Dave Murphy, paced between machines. Frank ducked out repeatedly to smoke and Brad of course, couldn’t be there. Our customer was super inquisitive and I wished he could have talked with Brad, but there was only me and Frank and we could hardly satisfy his curiosity.
Our demo succeeded in demonstrating that data packets of various sizes, burst rates and protocols traveled seamlessly across the wireless 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].
While the demo went perfectly, I had another shock in store. Dave Murphy told me that M/A COM and DEC combined forces to create their own Ethernet to microwave solution and they also wanted to do a demo. Apparently Louis wasn't done with me and now I was a one man show with two independent contractors squaring off against tech giants for business at the world's most renowned hospital.
Fortunately, Dave wasn't impressed by what he heard and remarkably, M/A COM and DEC never completed development, because RF and LAN designers couldn't get along. They didn't speak each other's language and kept pointing fingers whenever something went wrong. Weeks after the demo, 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, from MIT to NASA and UC Berkeley. There was no hiding the fact that they knew more than me and Frank, but we had the solution they all needed. Regional networks were springing up everywhere, institutions were eager for connectivity and fiber took forever to deliver. By contrast, we met the full 10Mbps Ethernet rate, delivered in 60-90 days and did it all for a one-time cost under $35,000.
In time, I recruited new engineers and we developed a full product suite—network interfaces, bridges and radios—type accepted the first LAN radios, collaborated with Cisco, completed technology transfers with Motorola and empowered early initiatives from distance learning to telemedicine. We extended internet access to hundreds of world-leading universities, hospitals, tech firms and research centers, across 46-states and extensively through Mexico, Brazil and Australia.
We had a terrific ride, peaking at an 80% market share (according to Aberdeen Group) but we lost a lot to Cisco's 2 Mbps solution (Aironet) when 802.11 emerged. Though their solution fell far short of our performance, there was no competing with Cisco's name. Later, as network speeds ramped to a gigabit, fiber made significant inroads as well, scoffing at wireless bandwidth. Enterprise accounts turned away from wireless backhaul, we lost major clients in the dot com bubble and I was burned out, wanting to spend more time with my sons as they approached school age.
What renewed my interest was low-latency for high frequency stock trading, and in 2010 my chief engineer, David Clark, laid out the second fastest path between the Chicago Merc and the NYSE. The network covered 720-miles, spanning 32-hops of 6GHz microwave. By then, we were more of a consulting firm and Microwave Bypass was a distant memory.
Years later, point-to-point microwave resurfaced as "fixed wireless" for residential consumers, and I covered that period as a consultant and analyst. I helped with business development, promoted advancements in massive MIMO, beam forming and horn antennas, railed against 5G marketing and warned—as I still do— about commoditization and "the race to the bottom."
First distance learning application, all wireless K-12 school district by Microwave Bypass. Early fixed wireless case study of DSUSD.
Aberdeen Group's comprehensive vendor profile on Microwave Bypass. Fixed wireless industry innovator, 1995.
Today, I lead Resilient Internet and the Internet Resilience Consortium, sharing a new vision for fixed wireless providers. It’s about hardened internet access, Certified for mission critical business and government operations, where prolonged internet outages can't be tolerated. And that's where microwave outperforms everything, because independently powered wireless backhaul is the *only* solution that can maintain internet access at enterprise scale, when power and fiber go down.
For providers, it's a premier service, all about quality and criticality, never lowest price. And it's Certified, to weed out bad providers and enrich qualified ones. Certification applies to installations and is based on a breakthrough 4-tier Standard, drafted with industry leaders across a wide spectrum of disciplines. Ultimately, the goal is to advance the Standard as an open source initiative through an appropriate industry forum. Initially, that was WISPA where I once chaired a resilience committee, and we may yet return to them.
Resilience isn’t perfect, just like seatbelts don’t save everyone. Yet, it's the best we have and the difference it will make for healthcare and public safety, business and national security will raise awareness that we don’t have to lose internet access after natural disasters or terror attacks. Meanwhile, business and government agencies are investing hundreds of billions in climate mitigation. Most is going to renewable energy and sustainability, completely overlooking internet and cloud access, without which no organization is resilient. That's what we're here to tell them and we can't do it alone, so we invite you to join us.
I hope you enjoyed this story. The enterprise market couldn't get enough of fixed wireless at the start of the internet and now extreme weather will bring it back, exponentially. For more on that, check out our website at Resilient Internet and email me to schedule a call.
Thanks and all the best,