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WIFI Windfall -

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G'day, welcome to Catalyst. Wi-Fi is of course very common these days. It's a technology that
allows devices like laptops and smart phones to communicate with each other wirelessly over a
local-area network. Now, several years ago, scientists around the world were struggling to get the
technology working. The problem was finally cracked by Australian scientists at CSIRO. So Jonica
Newby went to find out how they did it and also to learn about their epic legal struggle to gain
recognition for their achievement, an achievement worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

'This is the story of how a small group of Australian scientists beat the world's heaviest computer
hitters to one of the biggest inventions of our time.'

It's one of the most important inventions that Australia's ever made.

'Its epic sweep runs from the dusty fields of outback New South Wales to a courtroom showdown in
Texas.'

It's almost like it's a dream that's going to burst when I wake up.

'This is the true story of the invention of modern Wi-Fi and how the credit was nearly lost.' Now,
unless you've been living in a cave for the last few years you've probably heard of Wi-Fi.
Basically, if you have one of these gadgets in your home or business, you can connect to computers,
printers, phones and the web, wirelessly via radio waves. 'Yet, this ultimate symbol of global
connectedness began life in one of the more remote parts of the world. The radio telescopes of
outback New South Wales where, back in the '80s, a young Dr John O'Sullivan was practising extreme
radio astronomy, searching for exploding black holes.'

We were looking at hundreds of metres of film, looking for small V-shaped patterns on it. And I
guess I'm inherently lazy so I was starting to think at that time, "Hey, there must be a better way
of doing this."

'So John invented what would prove to be the key to this whole extraordinary story - the fast
Fourier transforms chip. Fourier transformation is a mathematical equation which changes
information from one form to into another, say, from radio waves to a spectrum. The beauty of
John's chip was that it could perform thousands of these rapidly.'

Oh, well, we never did find the exploding black holes but never mind. (LAUGHS)

'Fast forward to 1990 to the radio-physics division of Australia's venerable research institution -
The CSIRO. Flushed with their success in designing Australia's famous radio telescopes the division
were wondering what to do next.'

What was happening was that portable computers started to appear on the scene. I guess I thought
and so did John that portable computers didn't really have anywhere to plug in.

'And being extreme radio folk they thought, "Why plug into a network when you could do it
wirelessly?" It was incredibly forward thinking.'

In those days I'd never really seen a laptop computer or a mobile phone. And so the excitement of
trying to work on something that was going to be a bit like, you know, the communicators in Star
Trek.

'Trouble was there was some basic laws of physics in the way, sometimes called the cavern problem.'
Now, let's say I want to send a message to John over there. John, I have chocolate. (ECHOES
HEAVILY) 'Indoors, my voice bounces off every surface so echoes distort the message. The same thing
happens if my message is in radio waves.' Now, there is a way I can solve the problem just slow my
voice down. John, I...have...chocolate. 'The echoes die down and the message is clear. You could do
the same for radio waves but then you've got slow data transmission, too slow to be useful.'

The view we took was it has to be as good as the best wired networks. So now we were looking at a
problem that was, you know, well beyond what anybody was thinking they could tackle.

'They didn't know it at the time but 22 other major research groups around the world were trying
and failing to solve this problem. But these guys were outliers, they weren't from mainstream
computer firms. And over a mere six months this is the solution the tiny team came up with.' Now,
this time John wants to send a message to me wirelessly. 'If the message is broken into little bits
then each bit can be sent slowly. Enter John's fast Fourier transform chip. It can make multiple
copies on different frequencies. So even if not all arrive, enough will to construct the message.
It means you can send lots of data slowly but simultaneously.'

It was a fantastic chip. That was what gave us the edge over the rest of the world cos no-one even
thought that you could do that.

'But what if some parts of the message are still lost? One can't avoid errors in data transmission.
That problem was solved through clever coding using extra copies and error correction. The message
can now be unpacked and errors corrected instantly at the other end. That was the theory. Would it
work?'

There was a really good moment when the signals were bouncing all over the place and the error rate
that we measured said 0.00000. At that point, we said, "Yes, we've cracked it."

'They'd come up with a solution so perfect it seemed no-one would be able to do it better. Now, to
sell their invention to the world or not?'

They were generally polite but you got the body language that was a bit of a... ..yawn and they
weren't really interested in these crazy guys from Australia.

'Remember this was 1993. At the time their invention wasn't even commercially viable. Chips weren't
fast enough to run it. In 1996, their invention was granted a patent. Then as the digital decade
surged forward it became clear CSIRO's method was indeed the best. In 1999, it was written into the
International Standards for high-speed Wi-Fi. From 2000, high-speed Wi-Fi began to appear in
laptops, ph ones, homes.'

Well, we weren't concerned that they'd stolen the technology, we thought, "This is great,
everyone's using our technology." I think we were a little bit naive as to how easy it would be to
get the recognition for our patent.

'In 2002, Nigel Poole joined CSIRO. A businessman, he was determined to claw back the royalties he
believed they were due.'

So, we wrote letters to the companies who we thought were using our technology and we gave them a
certain amount of time to have a think about that, and of course in the end none of them decided
they wanted to take a licence. And so we decided to have test case.

'In February 2005, CSIRO sued the tech company Buffalo. Suddenly, the big guns unexpectedly came
out. Dell, Intel, Microsoft, NETGEAR and Apple all sued CSIRO to declare its patent invalid.'

Well, it certainly did raise the level of excitement in the process.

'Led by Nigel, they decided to counterfile against a further eight companies at the end of 2006.
These were deep waters, the biggest fight CSIRO had ever taken on. And it wasn't just about the
money. At stake was their people's legacy as the true inventors of high-speed Wi-Fi. But they were
up against 14 of the most powerful computer companies in the world.'

I mean, I know that they really did invent it cos I was there. You know, to have people hire
lawyers to say, "No, you didn't", you know, it's a bit confronting.

Every year there'd seem to be another flight over to the US where I'd have these lawyers throwing
documents at me which I'd written maybe 15 years ago and pointing to page 21 and saying, "What did
you mean by that?" And this went on and on.

'But the showdown, when it came in April 2009, seemed all too soon, fittingly enough, in a small
courtroom in Texas.'

When I walked into the courtroom and there was the swinging doors, the judge sitting at his large
desk and the jury in the jury box, and all these lawyers sitting in tables in front of you... it
was very nerve-racking.

'Meanwhile, outside the court a second team were deep in their own drama.'

So we have no idea what's going on in the courtroom but we're meeting with the 14 defendants trying
to settle the thing.

'But as the days ticked by, one by one their opponents began to lay down their guns and settle.'

I was in the office doing some preparation for my next appearance in the court and suddenly I hear
this almighty cheer, the last company had agreed to settle the case. I've never seen so many smiles
on 30 peoples' faces. After I just sort of sat down and went, "That's over, that's over."

'With the trial terminated they never did get to hear the jury's verdict. But to the original team,
it feels like the vindication they've so long sought. They really did invent high-speed Wi-Fi.'

Every time I, you know, pull my mobile out and think, "Yeah, yeah, that's got the same technology,
my laptop has the same technology." You can't help but feel pride.

'And it all came about from the Blue Sky Research field of extreme radio astronomy.'