It’s hard to deny how much we depend on wireless communications – and one pace-setting spinout company is helping to make it possible through patented technology developed at UCL and Cambridge University.
From schools, hospitals, airports and shopping malls, to sports stadia, music arenas, power stations and corporate HQs, Zinwave delivers unique optical-fibre solutions that allow high-quality wireless coverage to reach every part of a building or complex – however big it is, however tall it is and however far it extends underground.
Zinwave’s success demonstrates not just how collaboration between academic institutions can lead to remarkable technical breakthroughs, but also how close ties between academia and industry can provide a platform for robust businesses that meet key real-world needs.
The world has gone wireless – and with communications representing the heartbeat of any organisation, failure to safeguard the ability to, for example, make mobile calls, send texts or go online via a public or private wireless network simply isn’t an option. But this can pose a real challenge inside buildings. Brick, concrete and other construction materials absorb radio signals and can be hard to penetrate, resulting in:
- poor signal strength and, in the worst cases, reception ‘deadspots’
- reduced staff productivity (due to wasted time) and reduced profitability (due to missed opportunities)
- safety concerns – for example, if the functionality of public safety radio is compromised and announcements in public venues or spaces fail to reach the intended audience.
The ‘traditional’ answer – expensive and inefficient – involved using thick, heavy coaxial cables to extend networks around buildings. But was there another option? In the late 1990s, academic researchers at two leading UK universities joined forces in search of a smarter, cheaper solution.
“Mobile phone standards were still in their infancy but the potential was obvious,” recalls Professor Ian White, who moved to Cambridge in 2001. “We saw the opportunity to do something special in terms of distributing multiple wireless signals using a single optical fibre, avoiding the need to install different equipment for different services.”
With the support of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the LINK programme and industry partners, the research proved successful and generated a joint UCL-Cambridge patent covering the transmission technology.
“Pulling together complementary fields of expertise offered scope to find a new way of distributing radio signals in buildings“Professor Alwyn Seeds, Professor of Opto-Electronics, UCL
“The transmission of wireless signals using specialised optical-fibre technology had been an area we’d worked on since the 1980s,” says Alwyn Seeds, Professor of Opto-electronics at UCL. “Ian White and Richard Penty, both then at Bristol, had been doing remarkable work on transmitting very high-speed data using low-cost multimode optical-fibre technology. Pulling together these two complementary fields of expertise clearly offered scope to find a way of distributing radio signals in buildings using low-cost optical technology rather than coaxial cables.”
Spinout Zinwave Ltd was duly founded in 2002, with patent rights and know-how licensed to the firm the following year. In parallel, work at UCL and Cambridge continued and the close relationship between the company and the two universities was underlined by the presence of all three of Zinwave’s academic founders, Professors Seeds, White and Penty, on the firm’s Technical Advisory Board until 2011.
“In-building distribution of radio signals was highly reliant on smaller companies, so there was clearly room for a start-up like ours to break into that space if we got the technology right,” Professor White comments. “The constant traffic of people and ideas between the research teams and Zinwave helped drive forward development and testing and enabled challenges to be tackled very quickly, all of which put us in perfect shape for rollout to market. We always had confidence that our offering would work.”
In 2008, Zinwave launched its first commercial product: the Zinwave 3000 system. Flexible, affordable, easy to deploy and simple to maintain, this represented the world’s first wideband Distributed Antenna System (DAS) capable of accommodating, on a single optical fibre, a whole range of different:
- radio frequencies
- wireless-based communications services
- offerings from competing network operators.
“The constant traffic of people and ideas helped drive forward development and put us in perfect shape for rollout to market“Professor Ian White, Professor of Engineering, University of Cambridge
Utilising antennas strategically placed around a building to reinforce signals, the Zinwave 3000 proved an immediate hit, especially in the US and East Asian markets where early sales penetration was particularly encouraging. By 2012 Zinwave had established significant presence in a range of both geographic and vertical markets, and since that time has experienced compound annual growth rates of greater than 50%.
In Good Company
It’s estimated that over 80% of all mobile communications – whether using smartphones, tablets or other devices – are initiated within buildings. Moreover, with over 2 billion smartphone users in the world, the need for reliable in-building wireless coverage has never been greater. Now part of the McWane family of companies, Zinwave’s ability to meet this requirement and forge ahead in this crucial market is rooted in that initial foundation in cutting-edge science, in a powerful relationship with the research community still embodied in the company’s Technical Advisory Board and in the strong presence Zinwave continues to have in Cambridge where it maintains extensive engineering facilities.
As Scott Willis, Zinwave’s President and Chief Executive Officer, explains: “Zinwave is making great strides in the market because we have a best-in-class product based on advanced scientific research. We believe our DAS solution is uniquely suited to the needs of today’s enterprises and large facility owners.”
With offices now in the US, Macau and Australia, as well as the UK, this is a company with authentic global reach and a world-class product portfolio making its presence felt from Jakarta International Airport in Indonesia to Rotterdam’s Erasmus MC Hospital in the Netherlands, keeping pace with the ever-rising demands of today’s increasingly wireless world.
- Seeds, A. J (2002). ‘Microwave photonics’. IEEE Trans. Micro. Theory & Tech. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/22.989971
- Wake, D., Dupont, S., Vilcot, J.-P. and Seeds, A.J. (2001). ‘32-QAM radio transmission over multimode fibre beyond the fibre bandwidth’. International Topical Meeting on Microwave Photonics. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/MWP.2002.982299
- Seeds, A. J. (2002). ‘Wireless access over optical fibre: from cellular radio to broadband; from UHF to millimetre-waves’. 15th Annual Meeting of the IEEE Lasers and Electro-Optics Society, Glasgow, Scotland. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/LEOS.2002.1159385
- Seeds, A. J. and Ismail, T. (2010). ‘Broadband access using wireless over multimode fiber systems’. IEEE/OSA J. Lightwave Technol. http://dx.doi.org/10.1109/JLT.2010.2053347
Professor Alwyn Seeds
Head of Photonics Group, University College London