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

11/24/10Follow @wroush

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a place for Wi-Fi,” she says. “Over time, making the network as stable as a wire is really critical, and you’ve seen how carriers that have networks that are not stable get embarrassing PR.”

Ruckus’s founders William Kish and Victor Shtrom originally wanted to build what David Callisch, the company’s vice president of marketing, calls a “God box”—a multimedia Internet hub for the home that could handle audio, video, and other kinds of digital data. They knew the box would have to have a radio, to send data to various appliances around homes without forcing residents to snake Ethernet cables through their walls. But at the time, Wi-Fi wasn’t really up to the task of carrying streaming video. So they started to think about how to make a radio connection behave more like a wire.

“The fundamental challenge with radio communications is trying to get energy from Point A to Point B,” says Kish, an ArrayComm veteran who is still with Ruckus as chief technology officer. (Shtrom is chief wireless architect.) “Traditional Wi-Fi networks use antennas that are like light bulbs, radiating energy 360 degrees, even though at any given instant they are only communicating with a client in one direction. It’s a very inefficient use of the unlicensed spectrum. What we do is more like a flashlight, focusing only in the direction we want to communicate, which puts more of the energy on the target.”

Ruckus Wireless's Tomahawk antennaThe steerable Wi-Fi idea became so absorbing that the company abandoned its God box idea and decided to become a builder of better Wi-Fi access points. The first models contained arrays of fixed directional antennas that could be switched on and off independently. Over time, Kish and Shtrom figured out how to do the same job using fewer antennas, by placing what Kish calls “parasitic elements” around a primary antenna. These blade- or fin-like structures turn on and off and act as reflectors and absorbers, steering a signal wherever it needs to go. The whole operation is under the control of software that makes hundreds of adjustments every second, constantly searching for the transmission path with the lowest packet loss (a measure of how much data is getting through to the target device).

Selina Lo met the Ruckus team about nine months in, after they’d created a demo system that could send TV signals across a room. A Hong Kong native, Lo had built up a deep background in networking at Centillion Networks, a maker of Ethernet switches, and Alteon WebSystems, which she had helped sell to Nortelin 2000 for $7.8 billion. She’d also built up a reputation as one of Silicon Valley’s most demanding and difficult executives. According to a 2009 Inc. magazine profile, she was accustomed to imposing her will through “yelling, fist pounding, and stomach-curdling sarcasm.” Callisch, a subordinate at Alteon, had even asked for a different boss, telling Lo, “You cause me huge amounts of anxiety.”

After becoming Ruckus’s CEO (and an early investor), Lo underwent a “personality makeover,” according to the Inc. profile. After realizing that stressed employees aren’t always productive employees, she set up group decision-making processes, decided she didn’t have to win every argument, and cultivated patience through new hobbies like gardening. She even got Callisch to come along with her to Ruckus.

Lo’s new patience must have come in handy when the first market for Ruckus’s Wi-Fi access points—large telecom companies in Europe and Asia, who would in turn rent the equipment to home broadband subscribers—turned out to be a harder nut to crack than anyone expected. Ruckus had built a carrier-class device, but the carriers wanted to pay consumer prices for them.

“It was a zero sum game,” says Seamus Hennessy, Ruckus’s chief financial officer. “We realized about four years ago that we had a nice core technology and a profitable business, but it was never going to be a big business.”

So Ruckus went after an additional market: mid-sized organizations like hospital, hotels, and schools that needed dependable Wi-Fi networks, but weren’t being served by … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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