Fixed Wireless Got its Start as the Best Internet Access Solution
David Theodore graduated Boston College—equipped with a humanities degree—and at 25, founded Microwave Bypass Systems to innovate wireless broadband for the emerging internet. The year was 1987 and thereafter, MBS gave hundreds of world renowned institutions and millions of users their first internet access. Today the tech is called "fixed wireless access," the solution for home internet delivered by wireless internet service providers (WISPs) and major carriers. Here's the unlikely story of that industry's start.
WHEN FIXED WIRELESS DOMINATED THE EARLY INTERNET:
A TOTALLY OBSCURE, WHOLLY UNLIKELY STORY
Today, fixed wireless is closing the digital divide
and bringing resilience to mission critical communications.
Ask any industry pundit and they’ll tell you that before Wi-Fi (1997), internet access was all copper or fiber. What they don't know, is that (fixed) wireless played a *huge* role at the start of the internet. In fact, it brought the first internet access to a wide range of world leading universities, hospitals, research centers and tech firms before they could get their hands on fiber.
The tech came from a bootstrapped startup, “Microwave Bypass”, out of Kendall Square, Cambridge, and for a time, their wireless solution made more waves than fiber. Everyone wanted it, because for many institutions at the dawn of the internet, fiber was still a year or two away. Often longer. Also, fiber was an enormous investment and its bandwidth advantage didn’t yet play in, because Microwave Bypass could also meet the internet’s top speed at the time, which was 10 Mbps. Internet innovator and Sun Microsystems co-founder, Bill Joy, was so enamored with the tech, he installed a link at his house.
No one knows this history because, apart from the fact that “fixed wireless” is a more recent term, there’s a lost decade of telecom news from 1987-1997. Trade press from that time is hardly found on the internet. No one's had reason enough to go back and digitize it.
But let’s get back to Microwave Bypass, because that was my brainchild. I founded it as a 25-year-old telecom salesperson with seed money I wrestled from M/A Com, then a world leading microwave manufacturer. After a dismal first year as a reseller for M/A Com’s T-1 “microwave radios”, I realized that I was chasing the wrong telecom opportunity and became obsessed with the emerging Ethernet platform.
I approached M/A Com, but they weren’t interested in making an 802.3 (Ethernet) compatible solution and neither was NEC or anyone else. No one in wireless had any clue about Ethernet, not even Motorola. Finally, I decided to take on the challenge, being a humanities major with zero background in business or engineering. Yet I could read, and so I learned all I could process about the emerging LAN environment and thereafter, enlisted the talents of a seasoned RF tech (Frank Miani) and a self-educated LAN developer whose identity we kept top secret, because he was moonlighting. Together, the three of us banged heads for the better part of a year. Our goal was an 802.3 compatible transceiver that could play with a modified microwave radio to deliver seamless Ethernet connectivity.
We ran on fumes with both techs as independent contractors; one working early mornings and the other, the night shift. We seldom occupied the same space and none of us had money or an engineering degree. Yet despite it all, we prevailed and only in hindsight do I marvel at what we achieved.
In “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson wrote that much of innovation is about “location, location, location,” and he talks about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates growing up near universities where they had access to computers and early developers at the epicenter of the industry. Likewise, it didn’t hurt that our ratty little offices were walking distance from the first three dot-COMs on the internet and all of them became clients: Symbolics, BBN Technologies and Thinking Machines.
We also put MIT, Harvard and Boston University on the internet for the first time, along with the region’s largest tech companies and most of Boston’s medical establishment. We empowered Interop ’89 with its first internet access, networked Edwards AFB and UC Berkeley, and built a Smithsonian Award-winning K-12 network in California, where excess capacity fed the local community. And like many innovations, ours empowered other industries, like tele-radiology, telemedicine and distance learning.
Fixed Wireless Expedited Internet Access before Wi-Fi & Fiber
The first wireless internet solution met the full 10 Mbps internet backbone speed.
Microwave Bypass demonstrated the strongest attributes of fixed wireless and as clients often reported, reliability was exceptional, even in stormy weather. At the start of the 1990’s, LAN Times featured us as one of the top ten LAN vendors to watch, and by the mid-90’s, Aberdeen Group estimated that we had 75% of the worldwide market.
Today, fixed wireless has fallen out of favor with larger enterprises, due to bandwidth limitations, but it’s surging for competitive home internet access, delivered by thousands of “WISPs” (wireless internet service providers). Large carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, are also providing fixed wireless internet to the home, but I have my reservations.
So, what happened to Microwave Bypass? In short, I was too inexperienced in business and wary of venture capitalists. Instead, where we needed funds to build a faster 100 Mbps platform, I licensed our technologies to Motorola, but the deal failed to deliver the expected revenues. Later, the dot-com crash (1998-2000) decimated larger partners, and in 2001, I called it quits and took my chips off the table.
The last public reference to Microwave Bypass came on June 11, 2004, by way of Associate Professor Dave Molta of Syracuse University and I particularly appreciate his closing line:
“Fixed microwave wireless systems have been around for a long time. In the BF days—that's before fiber—microwave radios represented the most cost-effective medium for delivering information over long distances. Towers were constructed in suburban and rural areas, carrying analog voice calls over the wireless equivalent of T1 lines. Then, in the 1980s, a company called Microwave Bypass Systems teamed up with some hospitals and universities in the Boston area to deliver higher speed Ethernet traffic over the airwaves. In those early days of the Internet, that was quite a feat.”
For more, check out my scrapbook with dozens of news articles, ads, engineering and marketing literature, purchase orders and more, all in chronological order. I hope to write the narrative someday, for anyone wanting a good laugh and a dose of inspiration.
Meanwhile, today fixed wireless is the framework for a new industry standard—Certified by WISPA—to bring resilience to mission critical internet and cloud infrastructure in the path of climate change. Considering all that's at stake, this may be the greatest value proposition for fixed wireless, ever.
Thanks for your interest!