Wireless carrier Orange kicks off Mass. R&D center

European wireless carrier Orange SA yesterday officially opened a research and development center in Cambridge, Mass., designed to explore emerging wireless technologies for businesses and consumers.

The new space, bold for its design and informality, was chosen to be within walking distance of the MIT Media Lab and Harvard University to encourage idea exchanges. Orange will use the space to support small technology start-ups in which it has made investments, and a third of the space will be shared with R&D engineers from Orange's latest owner, France Telecom SA.

Orange officials acknowledged that it's a bit audacious to open an R&D center amid a crushing downturn in telecommunications and IT investment. "But actually, the greatest time to innovate is times like now," said Graham Howe, CEO of London-based Orange.

"There's lot of negativity out there now with valuations of companies low, but there's still an ecosystem for start-ups," said Richard Miner, vice president of OrangeImagineering, Orange's dedicated research arm. Miner has experience with start-ups, having helped found Wildfire Communications Inc. in Waltham, Mass., a pioneer in speech-based interfaces.

In fact, Orange demonstrated concept products that included software-enabled voice interactions on a handheld to help a user find businesses. In a demo of a concept product called Citiguide, a user said into the handheld, "Find cheap Chinese restaurants in Cambridge," and the text on the screen verified a price target of less than $15 and the word Cambridge. When the user confirmed those were correct, a list of eight restaurants flashed on the screen. When the user then asked for a map of the area, it also appeared. The demo was based on real usage of a wireless network.

Orange officials said they don't intend to rely only on data interfaces but plan to find the most useful applications and the most personal ones.

Some of the Orange-backed start-ups, including RadioFrame Networks Inc. in Bellevue, Wash., have enterprise customers in mind. RadioFrame has 70 employees and has received "substantial" venture capital funding from Orange to create software and hardware that integrates WiFi and wireless voice into a single network within a campus setting, said CEO Jeffrey Brown.

The voice component of the system now works only on the iDen network of Reston, Va.-based Nextel Networks Inc. but will shortly be expanded to support Global System for Mobile Communications wireless voice as well as Code Division Multiple Access networks, Brown said.

Nextel currently offers the product, which includes an access device connected over Category 5 cable to a chassis. Wireless voice and data services can be provided for up to 20 cents per square foot of coverage. For example, Brown said that Nextel itself was able to serve 1 million square feet of office space with RadioFrame voice and data networking for about $180,000.

Although network management tools are available for the enterprise, RadioFrame can also provide the management as a service to control security and reliability. The company boasts dozens of large enterprise customers, Brown said.

Another start-up supported by Orange is WaterCove Networks in Chelmsford, Mass. WaterCove is a mobile data infrastructure company, selling gear to operators to allow quicker provisioning and billing services to support new services that will be based on bit-rate pricing.

"We wanted to work with Orange because it is aggressive and forward-thinking. Even in downturns, they are innovating," said CEO Peter Lojko.

Other start-ups introduced by Orange include PocketThis, maker of a software platform that allows customers to pocket Web content; ByteMobile, an IP networking company that speeds up wireless data transmissions; Digital Rum, creator of a wireless ticket-delivery system; and Danger, maker of the Hiptop handheld for e-mail, messaging and voice, which will be launches nationwide next month.

Orange officials described their push for innovation as partly the result of the company's unusual history. Launched in London in 1994 as the last of four wireless carriers in the U.K., Orange quickly grew to 1 million customers by 1997. In 1999, it was bought by Mannesmann AG in Germany, which in turn was bought by Vodafone. The European Commission mandated that Vodafone divest itself of Orange, and so France Telecom stepped in to buy Orange in August 2000.

Orange operates in 22 countries and has 40 million customers, with 12 million in the U.K. and 18 million in France. Orange serves more than 60% of the business customers in France.

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