Seeing the light…

by Peter Griffin

The headline in Sunday’s Irish Independent doesn’t pull any punches: “Top secret innovation will revolutionise internet use”, it proclaims.

Further down in the article, the CEO of Dublin-based Intune Networks and former Microsoft executive, Tim Fritzley, ratchets up the hyperbole: “This is going to be the Nokia of Ireland,” he predicts. It all has a dotcom-bubble ring to it, even if Intune has raised 25 million euros in funding and has 40-odd PhDs on its payroll.

Witehira's Megamantis gadgets. Did they see the light of day?
Witehira's Megamantis gadgets.

But as New Zealand stares down the barrel of making a $1.5 billion taxpayer-funded investment in putting fibre optic cables in the ground (National’s broadband policy pledge should it from the next government), it may be disconcerting to learn that this Irish invention doesn’t involve wires at all, but lasers.

Could the land of the Celtic tiger really have something this powerful up its sleeve? The Independent continues:

“This technology will deliver voice, music, video — you name it — on demand. It will change the way we interact and will mean the equivalent of HDTV instantly, wherever you are — whether at home, on a bus or on the beach. The best bit is that you will pay for only what you use.”

All very big claims indeed.

A bit of a poke around on the Intune website doesn’t reveal much about the company’s “tunable lasers”. New products are “to be announced”. Tunable lasers have for years been tipped to deliver high-speed beyond those supplied by conventional networks. This release from researchers at the University of California, Berkeley and published exactly 10 years ago comes with the headline: “tiny tunable laser lights way to high-speed data networks perhaps 100 times faster than today’s fastest data communication systems”.

That emerged as gigabit ethernet was taking off, a standard that’s still delivering the fastest network speeds a decade on.

The independent story is a classic example of what happens when a reporter lacking the wary skepticism that goes hand in hand with good journalism, gets carried along by an entrepreneur’s enthusiasm. Intune may indeed go on to revolutionise high-speed networking, but to make such claims in a major newspaper without having conducted a public demonstration or shown off the product, is potentially embarrassing to inventors and reporter alike.

It reminds me of a press release that came across my desk at the Herald around 2004. It was sent from Powerbeat, the Hamilton company behind the car battery that never goes flat. Long after the battery business had fallen over, founder and former policeman Peter Witehira was pushing a new invention – under the bizarre brand Megamantis.

Witehira billed Megamantis “a free space optical alternative to radio, microwave and laser links”.It would be the answer to the the broadband bottleneck, require no radio licensing, shift masses of data through the air at high speed.

By that stage, Witehira, mired in legal action with Stephen Tindall over their investment in Deep Vidoe Imaging and with the never-fail battery a fading memory, no one was interested in Megamantis. Instead, my colleageue at the time, Paul Brislen, was compelled to write this interesting piece… The mad, the bad and the just plain gifted.