xMax - wireless voodoo?

Remarkable claims for WiMAX-busting system

Over the weekend, several stories of a "new low power wireless revolution" have appeared on the internet, sparked by a Florida demonstration by a startup wireless company, xG Technology. Unfortunately, the demo only allowed observers to see a black box.

Black magic, is what it seemed to be. It's using less than a watt of power to transmit high-speed data 20 miles using a standard omnidirectional antenna and - most important - it doesn't need a licence to broadcast, because the power is below the level where you have to have one.

And if the claims are right, they'll be able to have dozens of such links all in the same area, without interfering with each other. Black magic, indeed! - so, is it real?

One man outside xG Technology says "Yes." That's Stuart Schwartz, Princeton professor of electrical engineering. He says it's real. But he's not allowed to explain how it works.

One thing xG is not, is conventional; judging the new technology is not a simple matter. But what it claims to be is "wireless broadband a thousand times more efficient than WiMAX." How does it work? The founders won't say.

The list of weird features of the launch starts with the fact that the announcement was made in America, to a bunch of European journalists.

The next weird feature is the "legacy" which you'll quickly find if you search for Joe Bobier.

Search google news, and you get only nine hits, all about this week's announcement.

Go back only a little way in history, however, and you start finding the names iDigi Communications, and Island Labs, and the word "fraud" pops up, together with the names of Bobier's colleague, Richard Mooers.

Mooers regards all this as "vilification" and refers to "smears".

According to Mooers, the problem was the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York, which paralysed investment firm GE Capital at a time when he had a bridging loan for iDigi. "We could have just shut it all down after 9/11, using that as an excuse... but we said no, we are going to take the high road," is how Mooers sees it. And he now has new investors, who, he says "would never have got involved with us if there werre any truth in the smears."

The journalists who saw the demonstration saw high bandwidth data travel 18 miles, and are pretty convinced Bobier "has something." As one put it: "If you put a gun to my head and said which way would I bet, I'd say they have got a genuine innovation."

Crown jewels

The trouble is, the observers weren't allowed to see the "crown jewels" - the actual "how it works" 50c wireless chip. And it's not altogether clear why not.

The reason given was solid enough: a patent which will be granted later this month. Can't disclose before patent - absolutely true. The trouble is, if you go searching for Bobier's comments over the previous few years, you'll find that he frequently refers to the fact that his technology is already patent protected.

What has changed? Well, the claims, for one thing. The older reports suggest that xMax will be 20 times faster than conventional wireless broadband. By the time you get to this year's claims, the multiple is substantially improved. You're left without any way of knowing whether it's a hype upgrade, or a technology breakthrough.

ZDNet's technical editor in Europe, Rupert Goodwins, is a genuine, no-nonsense radio expert; radio ham licence, several hardware designs to his credit. He saw. His report is uncertain: "Does it work? Nobody can say for sure - not even XG. No independent tests have been published of any of the technology."

However, he observes, the company has demonstrated a very important part of its plans: "it has covered an area of over a thousand square miles with a claimed 50mW signal, and shown nearly 4Mbps arriving at a point almost 18 miles from the transmitter. Even given the details of the test some 14dB total gain in the antenna systems and a 260m-tall tower for the transmitter this is an exceptional result," Goodwins concluded. If only the word "claimed" wasn't there!

Ex-employees say Bobier is a genius. To quote one disaffected technician: "Joe Bobier is pretty much a genius, but the company (whichever one he happens to be working for at the time) is always touting what they've come up with and how great their technology is - and then never delivers."

Observers like Goodwins want to believe. But when it comes down to it, his report has to use words like "claimed" and "alleged" rather too often for comfort.

Another report from TechWorld writer Peter Judge, also struggled to be fair: "With a new technology you do have to be careful whether you are actually seeing what they claim. In this case, we saw a demo that appeared to send data from a 50mW base station, using an omnidirectional antenna, to a receiver 18 miles away. Even given the fact that there was 6.5dBi of gain on the sending antenna, and 8dBi on the directional receiving antenna, that is still impressive - consider how small a signal that is, when you reach that radius!"

Phrases like "appeared to send" won't warm the hearts of potential corporate customers. They'll want hard data, and a solid explanation.

One person has Bobier's confidence: "[The technology] has been checked over by Princeton professor of electrical engineering Stuart Schwartz, and that is the most important badge it has," was the word of the Judge. "Schwartz has effectively staked his reputation on it. Initially sceptical, he came round to the conclusion that it is clever, but not magic, and certainly not snake oil."

The proof of the pudding, for most people, will come later this month, when the patent is supposed to be published. At that point, it's hard to see how the veils of secrecy can be sustained.

See also this report from May, in Shorecliff.

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