RIDGELAND — SIGFX, LLC, after more than a half-decade of research and development, are on the brink of taking to market a new two-way wireless communication system using unutilized television spectrum. As innovative — and incredible — as that may sound, the story of the company’s journey to this point is perhaps even more amazing.
It begins in 1996 when Jimmy Rogers had a revelation that unused television spectrum could offer a cost-saving vehicle for two-way wireless communication that could reach those who are precluded from service due to geography and/or cost. A 40-year insurance veteran, Rogers had little technical background. So, how did he come up with the concept?
“I don’t know,” Rogers said. “I obviously heard about the unused television spectrum from somewhere, but I’m not sure how I got the idea for using it for wireless, two-way communication. It’s a mystery.”
The concept became firmly rooted in Rogers’ mind. He began to share it with other people, all of whom thought it would never work. But he just couldn’t let it go.
Finally, Rogers approached one of his insurance clients, Kenny James, who worked for a communication company and would eventually become a SIGFX investor. James saw the cost benefits — the system would use preexisting television towers, precluding the expensive proposition of building infrastructure. And it could reach those on the wrong side of the “Digital Divide,” not only here in the U.S. but other nations, including Third World countries.
“It has always been about more than a dollar,” Rogers said. “There’s a higher ideal here.”
A breakthrough was realized when Rogers couched the idea to Dallas Nash III, Ph.D. Merely church acquaintances, Rogers knew Nash had decades of experience in communication technology.
“We were in the restroom washing our hands, when Jimmy asked me, ‘Can you build a chip?’’ I said, ‘Well, not here,’” Nash said with a laugh.
Perhaps the first amazing turn in the story is when the men did a patent search to see if their claim had been jumped already. The unused spectrum in television transmissions has been there since TV’s first day, set aside for future applications such as closed captioning. However, the space has never been utilized. The men were amazed to find patent requests using television spectrum for two-way wired communication and one-way wireless communication, but nothing on two-way wireless.
Seeing that there was a patent hole, the men set out to try the idea. They took a van and a trailer, loaded them with approximately $1.25 million worth of equipment, and went in the field. It worked — but it was hardly practical.
“I told Jimmy, ‘Well, we just invented the largest, most expensive cell phone in the history of the world,’” Nash said with a grin.
Making the system practical was much tougher than proving the concept worked. The obstacles seemed daunting. For one thing, while the signal going out from the TV tower is large, the return signal is very small. Like trying to hear a pin drop in a bowling alley, SIGFX engineers, sometimes numbering as many as 40 at a time, tackled the problem by creating the Return Signal Processor, which allows for the reception of transmissions from mobile devices over much greater distances than previously possible.
Power was another issue. The only battery the company could find that was powerful enough for their purposes was a tractor battery, which weighs nearly 100 pounds. Putting their heads together, SIGFX engineers attached switches, which created a “smart battery,” one that only applies the juice when and where needed, thus extending the batteries’ life.
Other obstacles followed — processing capability and an antenna (company engineers designed an electronically steerable antenna, another SIGFX original). There were low points. But the men never gave up the faith.
“At every turn, when we ran across what seemed an insurmountable barrier, an answer would be found,” Rogers said.
After six years of research and development, SIGFX now has a working prototype. The equipment is small enough to fit on any desk top, while the phone itself is a regular looking palm-sized device.
A trial found the reception to be clear, with a background effect similar to the sound of a seashell held to the ear. In short the system functions and performs like any other wireless system.
With a working protoype in hand, SIGFX is still in no hurry to go to market. Nash said he and his team would roll out the new system when ready, and was quick to make a point.
“We’re not in competition with other wireless providers,” he said. “We see our system as a complement to their business model. Most cell towers are along interstates and highways. Our product has the potential to open new markets for them.”
Gary Conerly, who is director of commercial sales and entered the wireless industry full-time even before graduating from college, said television stations may also see a financial benefit.
“The spectrum is there and is not being utilized, but the companies are paying for it,” he said. “This is a potential extra revenue stream for them.”
Nash said, “In five years, I believe you’ll see our system in use in under-served areas of the U.S. and key countries of the world — Central and South America, China, India, subequatorial Africa, even some areas in Europe. And I believe some of our sub-products — such as our steerable electronic antenna — will find customers, as well.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.