By Gerry Blackwell
September 27, 2006
Rotani’s new software takes on Ruckus by creating ‘good neighbor’ signals with video-quality speed. Will product makers buy in?
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Another small startup is making a ruckus with technology it claims can solve Wi-Fi interference problems. Earlier this summer, Rotani, a Scottsdale, Arizona company, released reference designs for its patent-pending AirReferee technology, which it says makes 11g Wi-Fi networks interference-resistant and able to deliver consistent throughput of 35 Mbps even in densely populated wireless environments.
Like Ruckus Wireless, a company that already has products that address the same issues, Rotani is first targeting the IPTV market. IPTV service providers offering pay TV service over DSL and other broadband connections need to be able to offer a way for subscribers to distribute video to different TVs in a home. Plain vanilla Wi-Fi doesn’t cut it because interference from other networks can reduce throughput to a few megabits per second, which is not enough for a high-quality video stream.
Today, Rotani launched a product, VideoPuck, that targets this market specifically. VideoPuck is software that can be added to the firmware of standard access points and set-top boxes. It addresses the interference issues as well as problems with running multicast signals over Wi-Fi.IPTV uses multicast techniques in which one stream is sent simultaneously to many destinations and does not require acknowledgment from the receiving end. On Wi-Fi networks, conventional multicast signaling can reduce performance to as low as 1 Mbps. The Rotani technology prevents that drop, says company co-founder and executive vice president Nicholas Funke.
VideoPuck in effect converts a UDP (User Datagram Protocol) multicast signal into a point-to-point UDP signal. Funke claims the company has already convinced European IPTV providers Deutsche Telekom and Telecom Italia that its technology is the way to go.
“Initially, we wanted to market VideoPuck on our own platform,” he says. “Then we realized there was a market for just the software running on standard APs.”
The Rotani solution would be a lower-priced alternative to the Ruckus product, which, according to Funke’s analysis, requires two bridges priced at $150 each to make an IPTV connection. With the Rotani technology, an ISP could use standard APs costing $50 each, enhanced with the Rotani software, as IPTV bridges – though the enhanced AP would certainly cost more than an off-the-shelf version of the same product.
The VideoPuck initiative is clearly an attempt both to offer something competitive with Ruckus in the short term, and to start earning revenue sooner than the company would if it continued with the business strategy chosen for the core technology. As Funke delicately puts it, the company is currently in a “pre-revenue phase.” Rotani is marketing its reference designs to OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) and ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers).
The core AirReferee technology includes access points with two off-the-shelf 802.11 radios combined with Rotani’s patent-pending antenna architecture. Each radio is attached to one or more directional antennas. An AirReferee AP scans the environment and automatically sets the channel for each radio and antenna to minimize interference with adjacent networks. The result, Rotani says, is a significant reduction in noise.
“You see lot of dual radio designs where one radio is 2.4 GHz and the other 5 GHz,” Funke says. “But to get two radios to work on the same frequency [without interfering with each other] is very challenging. It takes a lot of know-how. The two radios work simultaneously and effectively double network performance to sustain necessary throughput.”
The AirReferee client device uses a single radio and a multi-antenna module. The system automatically determines the best transmit and receive antennas. It also periodically scans the environment to maintain the best channel assignments and antenna pairing to sustain performance.
“It’s not that we extend the range or the throughput,” Funke stresses. “Our technology sustains the available throughput, because it’s not as susceptible to noise.”
Tests of prototypes, which Funke says have been corroborated by ODMs the company is working with, show that in environments with no interference, the AirReferee network delivers about 40 Mbps of throughput. In environments with other networks, throughput only drops to about 35 Mbps – still enough for three DVD-quality video streams, which Rotani has demonstrated.
With conventional networks, throughput drops off quickly in environments with a lot of interference. In tests Rotani conducted in environments with several nearby networks, no conventional system could sustain sufficient throughput to support high-quality video, even at very short range.
There are two other parts to the Rotani value proposition. Because the components are self-sensing and self-configuring, AirReferee gear will be completely plug-and-play and user-installable. Plus, it not only is resistant to interference from other networks, it also interferes very little with other networks itself. Rotani refers to it as “good neighbor” technology.
The company hopes the good neighbor angle will eventually give it a leg up when selling to network equipment makers in the muni-Wi-Fi market (probably using 11n gear). AirReferee-based equipment will have the advantage of not interfering unduly with adjacent corporate and residential networks. Using Rotani-designed gear rather than more interfering competitive products will be “politically the right thing to do” for municipal network builders, Funke suggests. He may have a point. Would you re-elect city officials who championed a muni-Wi-Fi network that caused your own network performance to plummet?
Rotani will not build equipment itself. “We’ve stayed firm with the licensing model from the get-go,” Funke notes. And the company will continue on that path. For one thing, it’s the only way for a small start-up to get into the IPTV “value chain” quickly, he says. Ruckus forces IPTV providers to make a decision to rely on a relatively untried startup. With Rotani, they could get the same benefits at a lower cost, and deal with a familiar equipment maker. Companies that license Rotani’s AirReferee reference designs will pay a “moderate” royalty fee on every product sold.
It’s also a less capital-intensive approach. Funke claims Ruckus has already raised about $12 million and is now looking for another $10 million, while Rotani has come this far with only $4 million, raised from firstVentury, a German venture capitalist, and from Klaus Tschira, billionaire founder of software giant SAP. Rotani is now entering an “aggressive B round” of funding, Funke says.
Of course, Rotani’s is a completely unproven business model at this point, because it has yet to sell its technology to any OEM or ODM. The company is in talks with several and is waiting only to nail down bill of material (BoM) details to close deals. Funke says the first commercial products based on the company’s technology will begin to appear in the first quarter of 2007. Rotani likely will not strike exclusive deals; he says, “Exclusivity always comes with a price.”
The next phase is selling Wi-Fi semiconductor makers on incorporating Rotani’s technology into their 802.11n chips. The company is currently evaluating all the 11n chips, but for now the focus is on OEMs.