As tech industry Goliaths push to make their versions of OFDM the standard for wireless communications, the Davids of OFDM, led by wily Wi-LAN Inc., have organized to fight back.

The third official meeting of the Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM) Forum opens with Lee Warren, the organization's acting director, cutting straight to the chase - asking the members whether they are there to write new wireless communications standards or to rally around existing standards.

Nobody has to be coaxed into voicing an opinion. "We will not develop a new, separate standard for fixed wireless," says Nico van Waes, a Dutchman representing the technology interests of Finnish wireless giant Nokia from an office in Mountain View, Calif. "There are enough standards already for vertical markets that have yet to be established," says Benno Ritter, Palo Alto, Calif.-based vice president marketing, for Sican GmbH of Hannover, Germany. Phil Barber, CEO of Dallas-based 4G Network Technologies, points out that there are no standards for public mobile networks - should there be a new working group to discuss them?

Warren, whose day job is vice president of business development for Calgary, Canada-based Wi-LAN Inc., which makes and licenses something called Wideband Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (W-OFDM), lets the attention shift from the lectern to the audience. While one attendee speaks, two others huddle, murmuring urgently. They nod, and one of them rises to speak next. "Will the group led by Cisco merge with another group led by Nortel? That's an issue. We won't compromise on standards simply to merge."

Later that morning, the Fixed Wireless Access working group has a breakout meeting to discuss the details of a proposal they intend to present at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) meeting. The OFDM Forum is meeting at the Radisson Riverwalk Hotel in Tampa on Nov. 3 and 4 precisely because the IEEE's meeting on Local Computer Networks will be opening a few days later just a few blocks down the street.

Why a Meeting? The meeting is the brainchild of Warren's boss, Wi-LAN Chairman and CEO Hatim Zaghloul, and Krusat Kimyacioglu, manager of wireless connectivity products for Philips Semiconductors. Philips licenses Wi-LAN's Wideband OFDM technology. They decided an open organization devoted to supporting a universal OFDM standard was necessary for two reasons: One, they knew that if OFDM splintered into competing standards, it would fail. They wanted to unify the standard, which would help bring the technology to market faster. Two, they were disturbed when Cisco Systems started an organization called the VOFDM Alliance to promote its own Vector OFDM technology. In late 1999, Cisco said that it had OFDM-based products ready to ship (they did ship products, but only for trials - a contentious issue, to say the least).

Organizing an open forum was necessary, reasoned Zaghloul and Kimyacioglu, because a large, participatory meeting was probably the best way to develop and support a true industry-wide standard for OFDM-based products. Besides, neither tiny Wi-LAN ($3.9 million annual revenue in 1999) nor Philips (a hardware company) was in any position to take on Cisco alone.

The forum began following a meeting called by Wi-LAN and Philips in December 1999. At that meeting, 101 representatives from 60 companies agreed with Zaghloul and Kimyacioglu that the establishment of an industry organization to promote harmonization of standards was a good idea, and thus the forum was born. Its first official meeting was March 14, 2000, at the Broadband Wireless World Forum in San Francisco. It met again on July 13 and 14 in Calgary, and after this session, which drew about 100 people to Tampa, it will meet next in February 2001.

Consensus Not Promotion For a technology industry meeting, the OFDM Forum's origins seem more political than technological, in the sense that it is more a call to rally around a cause than it is to promote a technology. That, according to Warren, is exactly the point.

"This is not a promotion of Wi-Lan's technology," Warren insists. "This organization's purpose is to establish a single, compatible, global standard for OFDM technology in wireless applications. Some of the members may end up doing business with each other, but right now, things are very much in the formative stage. We're here to agree upon what the technology should be, and what it should be doing." She is the keeper of the flame of the meeting's strategy: This is to be an industry organization meeting, not a Wi-LAN meeting.

According to its charter, forum membership is open to any organization that is, or will be, engaged in research, development, and/or manufacture of OFDM products. Software firms or other users of OFDM products that are interested in developing and improving OFDM technology and standards are also welcome to join. Perhaps the most important public stance of the forum is that being a member does not require support of OFDM standards to the exclusion of other standards. For Wi-LAN, in particular, this is critical: The company must not be seen to be using the forum simply as a way to promote its own products - a policy Warren rigorously enforces.

The Real "Broadband" So, if this is a room full of technical people (including a handful of mathematics PhDs whose presentations are understandable only to one another), why aren't they settling all of this in an online chat room?

Because it takes the real "broadband" experience that a meeting gives to make something this important - and with this much potential for fractious behavior - to work. Part of the reason is that the telecommunications business, unlike, say, the Internet business, is very, very capital-intensive. That's why so many of those hot telecommunications startups whose stocks quadrupled in 1999 have fallen back to Earth in the last few quarters. None of these systems comes cheap and no one is going to make a casual decision about anything related to it.

Another reason may have to do with Wi-LAN's need to demonstrate its trustworthiness as a disinterested leader - critical to the success of Warren's agenda. At a live meeting like this one, everyone present can see whether the conference chair is walking the talk. And Zaghloul is careful to keep a low profile, sitting in a left-center seat about halfway back in the room and blending his own comments in with the give-and-take of the overall conversation. You can't put that across in an online meeting - not yet, anyway.

Similarly, Warren, who came to Wi-LAN in October 1999 after a long stint as a sales manager and business manager for Nortel Networks, is scrupulous about maintaining not just the appearance but the fact of open-mindedness. When other attendees bash Cisco for refusing to participate in the first OFDM Forum (even Zaghloul can't resist taking a little swing), she turns the other cheek: "I still hope the Cisco and Nortel groups will meet with us," she says. "It was worth inviting them once, and it's worth inviting them again." She knows that if OFDM is to prevail, the organization that promotes it must be genuinely united behind the technology. And that's not easy, because every attendee represents a company that is lusting for some kind of competitive advantage.

"It's more political than Gore and Bush," laughs Zaghloul. "We are trying to avoid fragmentation."

Which Approach Wins: Gorilla or Consultation? The question now is, how effective will the OFDM Forum be as the battle heats up even more over whose version of the coveted IEEE standard prevails? At the meeting, attendees - some of whom are active in other communications standards groups, including Cisco's Broadband Wireless Internet Forum - seem to prefer Lee Warren's open discussion model. "Cisco is taking the 800-pound gorilla approach," says Randall Schwartz, director of product marketing for Radix Wireless, Mountain View, Calif. "There is a standard, here it is, use ours. The OFDM Forum wants vendors to unite and present a single set of recommendations to the IEEE. I understand where Cisco is coming from, though. If you think you're an innovator, you don't want standards."

"At least we are consulting with one another," says Hikmet Sari, Paris-based chief scientist for Pacific Broadband Communications, San Jose, Calif. "The other two [Cisco and Nortel] are just pushing their own standards. They don't want to go to the IEEE."

In a way, the true measure of the OFDM Forum is the effectiveness of its presentation to the IEEE. In fact, it is possible to look at the OFDM Forum as working like a political lobbying group, trying to shepherd a piece of legislation through the complicated maze of a large, bureaucratic organization, which the IEEE certainly is.

"At the IEEE, you sit in a room with 200 people, and if there are actual problems with a proposal, it quickly becomes impossible to get anything done," says Zaghloul. "Everyone has to agree on terminology; the work has to be taken to a great level of detail," agrees van Waes, who chairs the Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) working group. "That is what we're here to do."

Signs of Success On this count, in the days immediately following the meeting, it looks like the OFDM Forum has done well. During the IEEE conference, Warren announced that the FWA working group has met its deadline, submitting a formal proposal endorsing the use of OFDM technology to the IEEE. She also reported that the forum has organized a special task force that will prepare a resolution, titled "Patent Disclosure and Willingness to License," for its next meeting, which will take place in San Francisco in February in conjunction with the Broadband Wireless Forum (not to be confused with Cisco System's Broadband Wireless Internet Forum).

If the OFDM's proposal to the IEEE is accepted, it will be an important step toward unifying standards. And unification is a necessary condition before anybody can start selling products in volume and making some money.

Finally, as in politics, the ultimate sign of success is who your friends are. And Warren is satisfied that as the OFDM Forum moves forward, it will continue to attract friends. A few weeks before the Tampa meeting, she scored a coup when Motorola, the U.S. semiconductor and wireless giant, became a principal member. At the meeting, Israel-based Breezecom, a maker of broadband wireless access equipment, decided to join up on the spot.

"The escalating momentum around establishing a global OFDM standard is proven by the Forum's continued growth," says Warren. She'll be looking for a larger membership list - and less enthusiasm for the Cisco/Nortel standards play - when the forum next convenes in February.

When the high-powered members of the OFDM Forum sat down at their classroom-style tables to listen to presenters talk about n-symbols and the other arcana of Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing, the first thing they did was turn on their laptops. The next thing they did was reach under the table skirts to plug them in. "At the last meeting, everybody complained that there wasn't power available," says Shawn Kelly, marketing communications specialist for Wi-LAN. "So this time, we ran extension cords with power strips under all the tables. It's easy, it's cheap, and everybody is happy."

So, why are wireless communications standards so important? At base, it's because wireless technology is a lot more finicky than its wired counterpart. It's not practical to plug a black box into your Internet-enabled cell phone to fix a systems incompatibility. At another level, having ironclad standards would make OFDM more economically competitive with a cheaper and older rival technology, CDMA. As Krusat Kimyacioglu, manager of wireless connectivity products for Philips Semiconductors, points out, a single standard will make it possible to produce large volumes of product, which will drive costs down. Mike Wolf, an analyst who follows the technology for Cahners In-Stat Group, estimates that the wireless market will be worth $1.2 billion in 2001, with a steep growth rate forecast.

There's yet another reason: The telecommunications carrier companies that represent the market for this technology are desperate for anything that works. In his presentation to attendees at the OFDM Forum, Khurram Sheikh, chief technology adviser for the Sprint Broadband Wireless Group, says, "Time to market is critical. We'll deploy technology that meets 80 percent of our needs." He tells them he has to compete with cable modem providers who have gigabit capacity, while he has only 200-megabit capacity. He needs bandwidth. He needs non-line-of-sight wireless service. He needs everything, now. Like a lot of his peers in the marketplace, he wants something that works even more than he wants consensus on standards - although he wants that, too. Incredibly, he admits that he'll buy products that only sort-of work, because he's afraid that if he doesn't start using the communications spectrum he bought at auction from the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC might take it away from him.

With customers like Sheikh, it's no wonder OFDM proponents got bent out of shape when Cisco announced it was shipping its own Vector OFDM technology product. "When you have a brand and a product, you promote it whether it works or not," notes Weston Vivian, president of Vivian Consultants, Ann Arbor, Mich., who makes his living by assessing telecommunications services business opportunities. He adds that he is at this meeting because he believes the battle over standards is retarding the progress of communications technologies in the United States. Nokia's Nico van Waes adds that the pressure from customers is yet another reason why the OFDM Forum is a good idea. "Time to market is important, but [concentrating on that alone] is short-term thinking," he says. "It would be good to have a standard that works."

Hatim Zaghloul, chairman and CEO of Wi-LAN Inc., Calgary, Canada, doesn't want a war over OFDM standards. He would much prefer, he says, that Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks, promoters of their own standards, "meet reasonably" with the OFDM Forum.

"Saying `everyone follow me' has never worked in the wireless industry," he explains. "Wireless needs strict compliance with standards to work. We want to be an enabler, not a disabler."

But he is apparently ready to play hardball, too. Just three weeks after the conclusion of the forum meeting in Tampa, Wi-LAN sued Radiata Communications Inc., which is soon to be a unit of Cisco, for patent infringement in the federal court of Canada. Stay tuned for further developments.