14 October 2009
The Australian team behind the technology wireless LAN has been recognised for their work, the same day that the organisation's annual report reveals the magnitude of the invention's worth.
Headed by electrical engineer Dr John O'Sullivan, the researchers were awarded the CSIRO Chairman's Medal at a ceremony in Melbourne today.
Wireless LAN, also known as WiFi or IEEE 802.11, forms the backbone of wireless networks around the world, and is used in an estimated 800 million devices including computers, printers and mobile phones.
Wireless LAN had been under development since the 1970s, its slow transmission speed made it impractical for connecting to the Internet.
The CSIRO team based in Sydney were successful in speeding up wireless LAN, by overcoming a problem known as 'multipathing'.
"You might imagine that the little box with the flashing lights that powers your home wireless network is simply beaming information straight to your laptop," says O'Sullivan.
"In reality the radio waves travel in all directions, bouncing off walls, furniture and people - making it very hard to deliver a clear signal to the receiver."
The solution involved a technique that had been developed for use in radio astronomy.
O'Sullivan created a chip that used fast Fourier transforms to assist him in searching for exploding black holes 'hidden' on hundreds of metres of film.
"I was inspired to think about ways of cleaning up smeared radio signals to make searching for short pulses like those from exploding black holes easier," he says.
"We ended up building a 'fast Fourier transform' chip to do these sorts of processing tasks efficiently and fast."
Several years later, that same technology was used to resolve the multipathing problem.
"That proved to be the key to untangling the web of wireless signals so we could build a workable high speed wireless local area network (WLAN)," says O'Sullivan.
CSIRO patented the technology in 1996. It began appearing on the market in 1999 and the technology was adopted as industry standard.
"In many ways we knew from the outset that it had the potential to be huge," says O'Sullivan.
Despite its widespread use CSIRO received no royalties.
In 2001, the organisation sought licensing agreements from a number of companies, including Microsoft, Nintendo, Hewlett Packard and Apple.
"When that did not prove successful, we initiated legal proceedings which then led to proceedings being initiated against CSIRO," says commercial executive director Nigel Poole.
In April, a series of confidential settlements were reached with CSIRO, which would now see the organisation receive ongoing royalties.