The Wild World of Wireless According to Tom Huseby, a Well-Connected Seattle VC

9/5/08Follow @gthuang

Tom Huseby has a fairly normal-looking BlackBerry phone. No fancy software on it, he says—not even from Ontela, SnapIn, or Zumobi, local mobile-tech companies for which he serves as chairman of the board. It rang two or three times during our meeting at his downtown Seattle office, and he dealt with the calls right then and there. It’s the only way he ever gets things done, he says.

I’d expect nothing less from one of Seattle’s foremost VC authorities in wireless and mobile technology, though he would disagree with that label (OK, maybe I’d expect a fancier phone). And what with all the local wireless deals in the past few weeks—SnapIn Software’s $180 million acquisition by Nuance, Medio Systems’ contract with Google and Verizon to do mobile search, and RadioFrame Networks’ latest $28 million funding round—I thought it would be a good idea to sit down with Huseby. He is the co-founder of SeaPoint Ventures, as well as a venture/strategic partner at Oak Investment Partners, Hunt Ventures, and Seattle-based Voyager Capital. I wanted to get his take on the history of wireless in the Seattle area, his strategy in doing wireless deals, and where it all comes from.

Huseby began by establishing that the Seattle area has “the highest concentration of wireless technology in the world. There are more cool [mobile] applications within a 10-mile radius than anywhere else.” (Next would probably be London, he says.)

Next, he gave a fascinating modern history of wireless, starting with the original AT&T Bell Labs technologies and moving into spectrum allocation by local towns and territories. Those territories got put together into the first nationwide network by Craig McCaw in the 1980s, when he started McCaw Cellular in Seattle. In 1994, AT&T acquired McCaw Cellular for $12 billion-plus. One of McCaw’s veterans, John Stanton, went on to start VoiceStream Wireless and Western Wireless in the area, which were bought by T-Mobile and Alltel in 2001 and 2005, respectively. “Every time someone was bought, they actually didn’t move people out of Seattle. People would move here, and it just kept growing,” Huseby says. “We have more concentration of carrier presence here than anywhere else in the country. It’s unbelievable. There are no wireless carriers headquartered in the Bay Area.”

The stage was set for a local explosion of mobile software and services companies. “The big famous shift in it all was, this also was ground zero of a lot of Internet technology,” says Huseby. “So when you combine Internet with the fact that we know mobile here, all of a sudden we started generating some of the first mobile data applications.” (These applications are distinct from things like networking equipment, fundamental radio-frequency technologies, and handsets, which are centered in other locales like Texas, Southern California, and Massachusetts.)

Pretty soon big software companies like Microsoft, Google, and RealNetworks were into mobile tech. On Microsoft, Huseby notes, “They should be buying software companies to get stuff on mobile phones, one after the other.” He adds: “So all of a sudden, little Seattle became the place to go if you wanted to build wireless applications.”

Which is where he enters the picture. Born in New York and brought up in São Paulo, Brazil, Huseby started his career in the 1970s with materials science company Raychem. Through the process of selling products to telecommunications companies, he got to know them very well. “It’s just as hard as selling to a wireless carrier. You had to work … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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