On the Job – With Mumford & Pals
LR [in car]: How long have you worked at Nortel?
Mumford: Thirty-one years. I started August 30th, 1971.
LR: What made you stay here that long?
Mumford: Well, I had to make the decision to stay a number of times… Holy Mackerel! We’re going to get killed!!
[PR person puts the pedal to the metal with absolutely no apparent increase in the Rav4’s velocity, as we run a light that had been red for quite some time before we arrived at it.]
PR person: Huh – you can talk with your driving, Greg.
Mumford: Everyone criticizes my driving... As I was saying: It’s always been the diversity of opportunity that kept me here in the past. And now the company needs to be rebuilt, so I can’t leave now.
LR [ungluing hands from dash board]: So do you think Canadians are more loyal than Americans, then? Mumford: I hesitate to generalize, and blind loyalty serves no one. But Denis [Niles] hit on part of it. You should be where you are because of the people, because you respect and have confidence in your teammates, and because you believe you can win. None of that has anything to do with blind loyalty.
LR: Do you still enjoy it?
Mumford: Some days more than others. It would be fun to get into a more fun phase.
[A short discussion ensues on local wildlife. Visiting Ottawa is rather like starring in your own episode of Wild Kingdom.]
LR: I saw a big brown animal when I was driving up to your building this morning.
LR: Hey, I’m just asking.
Mumford: No, it was a groundhog.
LR: Wow, and they just wander around like that? Amazing!
[Mumford and PR person look at LR editor like he’s an idiot (no surprise there).]
PR person: Hit a deer once. Deer won.
Mumford [philosophically]: Deer always win.
[The Light Reading editor is still musing over that laconic utterance, when we arrive at Nortel’s wireless facility. I’m ushered into the office of Al Javed, VP, Wireless Networks Technology. Another room, another impressive view of Ottawa greenery.]
Al Javed: We’re the only company that offers infrastructure that complies with all the wireless standards. LR: What, all of them? Javed: Yes. [He rattles off eight or nine acronyms… GSM, CDMA, GPRS, 1XRT, UMTS, CDMA2000, and so on.]
LR: What do you think of Tahoe Networks?
Javed: Their founder is the same guy who founded Shasta – which we bought. Their technology is incremental, it’s not the huge leap forward that they are portraying it as. Micro-billing, for example: We’ve added that to Shasta. I was in a conference with them, and they seem to have forgotten that we are constantly adding to and upgrading the Shasta product.
[Javed takes us for a tour of the facility, during which we meet David Starks, manager of advanced wireless design at Nortel. Starks gives us a demonstration of how a laptop loaded with a combined 1x/CDMA wireless modem and 802.11 wireless modem can move between networks, seamlessly. This involves putting a laptop equipped with said device on a table on little squeaky casters and getting a Nortel technician to roll it from one side of the room to the other. It works. The Light Reading editor then has a go with the trolley, and it still works. There is a bit of a Godot-like silence while everyone stands around grinning at each other and the Light Reading editor tries, and fails, to think of any questions. We move on.]
David Starks: I work on technology beyond 3G.
LR [taken aback]: Beyond 3G? Aren’t you getting a bit ahead of yourself? Does this mean we can expect “legacy 3G” technology any day now?
Starks: No, no... well, not really…
Mumford: If you are going to be an industry leader you had better always be looking at the next technology, the next step beyond where we are now. That’s what David does.
Starks: We’re talking about really high speeds.
LR: How high?
Starks: High. Like, 20 megabits.
[Starks gives us a demonstration of a technology that Nortel is working on called OFDM, or orthogonal frequency division multiplexing. It is really impressive (much better than the table on casters). He explains how Nortel is planning to develop prototypes that will combine OFDM with another technology called MIMO (multiple input, multiple output), which uses multiple antennas on a PDA or laptop to boost throughput to some seriously high speeds. The only hurdle seems to be that right now the OFDM part of the equipment weighs a few hundred pounds and occupies an entire laboratory table. Still, the Nortel team doesn’t seem phased by the challenges ahead.]
Starks [completing long complicated technical explanation]: ...so using OFDM you increase the capacity and spectral efficiency by a factor of 10 over 3G.
LR: So this is 4G?
Starks: I didn’t say that.
LR: How long until this stuff is small enough and affordable enough for me to buy it?
Starks: Seven to ten years.
Mumford: It won’t take ten. These things either happen or they don’t. If it’s the right solution it will materialize faster than we expect.
[It’s obvious even to our rudimentary editor-brain why Mumford has included this part of the Nortel campus in the tour: He wants to demonstrate that Nortel is still investing in the future of telecommunications. This prompts us to ask...]
LR: How much does Nortel spend on R&D these days, Greg?
Mumford: 20 percent [of revenues]. That’s less than last year, but more as a percentage because this year’s revenues were lower.
[We leave the wireless building to head back to the main Nortel campus. After our experience on the way over, both Greg and the Light Reading editor try to politely insist on sitting in the back seat of the "car"... Greg wins.]
Next page: Highway to Heck