As 3G Networks Buckle, Ruckus Wireless Sends Smart Wi-Fi to the Rescue

Wi-Fi: it’s the new utility, as crucial to many consumers and businesspeople as electricity and telephones. Wi-Fi chips are built into 800 million new laptops, mobile phones, tablet PCs, printers, video game controllers, and TV set-top boxes every year, and Wi-Fi networks blanket virtually every office, library, airport, hotel, café, and campus.

If only Wi-Fi were as dependable as most other utilities. Unfortunately, the more people who install access points in dense urban environments, the more interference arises between devices, slowing everyone’s connections. On top of that, Wi-Fi signals share the unlicensed 2.4-Gigahertz frequency band with Bluetooth, Zigbee, cordless phones, baby monitors, car alarms, ham radio, and even microwave ovens. (Yes, Wi-Fi devices use roughly the same wavelength as the radio pulses that, at much higher power, can bake a potato.) That’s why you might have a blazing-fast, 30-megabit-per-second Wi-Fi connection in one corner of your office, but lose it a minute later if you shift six feet to the left. Especially if someone is using the microwave at lunchtime.

Part of the problem stems from the fact that Wi-Fi signals, like cellular or FM signals, spread indiscriminately in all directions. That’s a feature, not necessarily a bug: your home or office Wi-Fi router doesn’t know where you are, so it has to send signals everywhere. But what if your router were smarter, and could use modern beam-forming technology to shoot a signal straight at your device—then make that beam follow you as you moved from your desk to your couch to your kitchen? In principle, signals from a dynamic, directional Wi-Fi antenna would have a greater range, and would be far less vulnerable to interference.

Well, it turns out this is an idea radio engineers have been thinking about for a while. And there’s a company in Sunnyvale, CA, called Ruckus Wireless that’s making it work so well that cellular carriers may soon start placing Ruckus Wi-Fi systems in public places, where they could help rescue strained 3G networks by taking on much of the data traffic now squeezing through the 3G channel. That’s called “offloading,” and it’s one of the ways harried operators—whose networks now support unanticipated numbers of 3G devices like iPhones, iPads, and Android phones—hope to survive the interim years before the arrival of true 4G technologies, which could offer Wi-Fi-like speeds across much greater distances.

Selina LoPCCW, Hong Kong’s leading telecom company, has been installing Ruckus Wi-Fi routers in phone booths, which tend to be located in places where there are also lots of people using cell phones. “Pedestrian gathering places are good places to put Wi-Fi access points,” Ruckus CEO Selina Lo says. “PCCW told me that in peak areas, at peak times, they can see as much as 20 percent offload.” If AT&T were able to hand off that much of its 3G traffic to Wi-Fi, it might be able to mollify many of the iPhone owners who are eager to switch to Verizon, on the (iffy) assumption that the other carrier’s network will have more capacity.

Incubated six years ago in the offices of Sequoia Capital in Menlo Park, CA, Ruckus has collected $51 million in venture backing, from Sequoia as well as Firelake Capital, Focus Ventures, Investor AB, Motorola Ventures, Sutter Hill Ventures, and WK Technology Fund. It’s a scrappy and persistent company—the barking dog in its logo isn’t wholly whimsical—and it has reinvented its product line at least twice over the years to adapt to market trends. But the 278-employee startup, which flirted earlier this year with the idea of going public but put the idea on hold due to the sluggish economy, is now under pressure to find a major market for its smart Wi-Fi access points. So there’s a lot riding on the 3G offloading concept—an idea Ruckus adopted from one of its own customers in India, Mumbai-based Tikona Digital Networks (more on that below).

Lo argues that even after 4G technologies like Verizon’s LTE standard take hold, there will be a need for other shorter-range technologies to fill in the inevitable gaps in coverage. “Licensed spectrum is an expensive resource, so there is always going to be … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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