Deborah Stokes, Leader of University Interaction, Nortel Networks
Michail Bletsas, Director of Computing, MIT Media Lab
Nicholas Negroponte Chairman Emeritus, MIT Media Lab
MIT Media Lab (Cambridge, MA); various Nortel Networks locations in Canada and the United States
In 2001, intrigued by the increasing, grassroots popularity of wireless local area networks (WLANs) using Wi-Fi technology (the 802.11 standard used in laptops), the Media Lab’s Nicholas Negroponte and Andy Lippman encouraged Nortel to capitalize on this “disruptive” technology.
Brainstorming with Media Lab researchers, and using the Lab as a testing site, Nortel quickly overcame technical challenges, and brought their product to market early enough to catch the wave of demand for seamless, wireless roaming.
Through the university interaction program, Nortel’s Wireless Networks executives initiated a series of brainstorming sessions with leading researchers at the Media Lab on the future of wireless communications. “The Media Lab argued compellingly that Wi-Fi was the way to go and that we could enter this market with extensible mesh networks that were secure, affordable, easy to deploy, and easy to scale,” said Nortel’s Mark Whitton, vice-president and general manager, WiMax and Wireless Mesh Solutions.
Over six months, leaders from the two organizations collaborated in extensive face-to-face meetings, e-mails, and conference calls to discuss the features and potential market for the new product. Just 18 months later, Nortel introduced one of the industry’s first wireless mesh networks as part of a new wireless LAN solution.
Nortel overcame two major drawbacks to widespread use of wireless LAN technology—patchy coverage and limited range—and tested its new wireless LAN architecture at the Media Lab before releasing the product. In the typical Wi-Fi network, users encounter frequent “dead spots” as they move between access points that transport data back to the wired network. Nortel’s wireless mesh network enables access points to communicate with each other, extending the reach of Wi-Fi zones and creating a more flexible network. With less need for costly, wired connections, the “peer to peer” architecture also lowers data transport costs.