Dr John O’Sullivan
– The inventor of modern WiFi
You may or may not have already heard of our very first Hall of Fame winner. And oh boy, was this a big deal! For the uninitiated, here’s introducing the 2020 Hall of Fame Award recipient – nominated internally and voted for wireless, thanks to his very own invention.
In 1974, the British physicist Stephen Hawking theorised that black holes were not always black. And as they became extremely hot and shrunk, they could blow up and hurl radio pulses through space.
“We needed to find a way to either detect the smeared signal or unsmear it all together.”Dr John O’Sullivan
In 1977, while working at the Dwingeloo Radio Observatory in the Netherlands, John O’Sullivan co-authored a paper in the Journal of the Optical Society of America titled ‘Image sharpness, Fourier optics, and redundant-spacing interferometry’ with J. P. Hamaker and J. E. Noordam. This paper presented a technique for sharpening and improving picture clarity in radio astronomy images.
O’Sullivan never quite got around to detecting exploding black holes. But in a few years, he and his colleagues were tasked to do so. And so, they adapted the work to a different form of communication – one much closer to home and one that most of us take for granted.
20 years later, he was enticed to go back to Australia by his former boss, Dr. Bob Fratar. In his winning speech, O’Sullivan told us:
“It turned out to be not-so-easy. But a few years later, we got a good team together with a goal of making a new wireless network. This one would be much much faster than the existing one and equal to the best fibre optic network at the time.”Dr John O’Sullivan
In the early 1990s, a group of scientists led by O’Sullivan were working in the CSIRO’s radio astronomy division, looking at how to make wireless networks work as fast as wired networks. They built the invention which was then described in patent applications filed in 1992 and 1993. The final WLAN patent was subsequently granted on 23 January 1996 in the US.
Initially, the CSIRO planned to commercialise research via licensing. In 1997, Macquarie University Professor David Skellern and his colleague Neil Weste took a nonexclusive licence of the patent to further develop chips and technology under the new startup called Radiata.
Two years later, Cisco and Broadcom invested in Radiata – $4M with 11% stake for each investor and valuation at around $3M. In September 2000, Radiata demonstrated a chip complying with the recently-finalised IEEE 802.11a Wi-Fi standard at a major international exhibition. It could handle transmission rates of up to 54 Mb/s – as much as many common WLANs achieve to this very day.
Radiata, with its 53 employees, was acquired by Cisco in November 2000 for A$567M.
By 2002, the first unlicensed products containing CSIRO W-Fi technology had begun to appear on the market. In 2005-06 CSIRO filed patent infringement claims against giant companies such as AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Toshiba, ASUStek, Fujitsu, Nintendo, D-Link, Belkin, SMC Networks and 3Com.
The District Court in the Easter District of Texas issued a ruling, in favour of CSIRO, in June 2007. As of April 2012, the CSIRO has earned over $430M in royalties and settlements arising from the use of this patent as part of the 802.11 standards, with as much as a billion dollars expected after further lawsuits against other parties.
“We didn’t fully realise this at the time, but there has indeed been an impact.”Dr John O’Sullivan
O’Sullivan joined Morse Micro, the second startup that licensed technology from CSIRO in 2019. The Sydney-based company is developing a WiFi microprocessor, now known as WiFi HaLow.
This was an incredible story of how research commercialisation got out of hand, but in the end, proved to be a huge win for the Australian researchers at CSIRO. WiFi technology is possibly the one technology that most of us can’t imagine living without these days.
Most of the modern devices that have revolutionised the industry in the past two decades such as mobiles, tablets, modems, speakers, home devices and watches have in-built WiFi chips that modernised our lifestyles too.
Because of WiFi, we feel like we’re living in the future, and that’s all thanks to Dr. John O’Sullivan and his brilliant team at CSIRO. Thank you for your work and inspiring legacy.