Patented in 1996, WLAN, or WiFi as it is commonly known, is now installed in an estimated three billion devices such as laptops, phones, cameras and games consoles. This exponential growth should reach five billion wireless enabled devices worldwide by the time CSIRO’s patent expires in 2013.
Interestingly, WLAN was invented through the work of CSIRO radio astronomers, John Sullivan, Terry Percival, Diet Ostry, Grahame Daniels and John Deane. At the time of lodging their first patent application in the early 1990s, there were a number of competing technologies, but none really hit the mark. The biggest problem was maintaining high data speed without signal loss through radio waves bouncing off hard surfaces. CSIRO’s team invented a fast chip that could transmit a signal while reducing the echo. The team also made efficient use of the radio frequency spectrum which ensured their invention could be widely adopted at a competitive price point.
Early efforts to commercialise the technology met with mixed results, but eventually industry consensus recognised it as the best of its class. In 1999, one of the first modern international standards for WLAN relied on the technology covered by CSIRO’s patent for its implementation. In 2001 the first products entered the market.
CSIRO set out to encourage the industry to take licenses for its patented technology. When that proved unsuccessful, CSIRO then mounted a test case in 2005 in which began a long chain of legal wrangling with some of the world’s most powerful information technology companies.
On 1 April 2012, Minister for Science and Research, Senator Chris Evans, announced a successful settlement of litigation in the United States. CSIRO has license agreements with 23 companies, representing around 90 percent of the industry, with total revenue earned from this technology now more than $430 million.
Nigel Poole, who leads CSIRO’s commercialisation activities, acknowledges that none of this would be possible without the certainty of a robust patent that has withstood intense legal scrutiny.
“CSIRO has an impressive array of about 4,000 pieces of intellectual property, with about 100 new items being added each year. The portfolio is an asset base – the investment taxpayers and other partners have made into CSIRO science. Whilst it’s difficult to value in the traditional accounting sense, as with any other asset, we expect it will add value to our business.”