Three companies - Novatel Wireless, Sierra Wireless and Kyocera Wireless - are helping drive the future of wireless connectivity.All three San Diego companies make wireless modems that allow laptops and other mobile devices to connect to the Internet over fast cellular networks being built worldwide.
"It gives people the ability to have a desktop-type computing experience on a mobile computer," said John Chier, spokesman for Kyocera Wireless. "You've now got the speed you need to access the Internet."
Recent upgrades to cellular networks worldwide have given the makers of wireless modems the boost they needed in the market. Old cellular networks had slower download speeds than dial-up Internet connections.
"This year was probably the turning point for the modem makers," said Allen Nogee, a principal analyst for the In-Stat market research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Now it's more feasible for people to actually use the modems and get faster speeds."
Without a fast connection, no matter how advanced the wireless modem, surfing the Web over a cellular network "was pretty much a pipe dream," said Brad Weinert, chief operating officer for Novatel Wireless.
Several years and billions of dollars later, wireless carriers in the United States and elsewhere have upgraded or are in the process of upgrading their networks to speeds about as fast as those offered over a digital subscriber line.
The breakthrough came when Verizon Wireless rolled out its high-speed data network, using technology developed by wireless giant Qualcomm.
Verizon Wireless, Sprint, Cingular Wireless and T-Mobile have since followed with network upgrades across the nation.
Unlike a Wi-Fi connection, which is available only in short-range "hot spots," a Wireless Wide Area Network connection, or "wireless broadband," provides a much farther reach - over several miles - wherever the wireless provider has a signal.
To take advantage of the new high-speed cellular connections, laptop users need the kinds of wireless modems made by Sierra Wireless, Novatel Wireless and Kyocera Wireless, all three of which compete in the U.S. market.
Like Kyocera, Novatel Wireless has its headquarters in San Diego; Sierra Wireless, a Canadian company, has a development facility in nearby Carlsbad, Calif. One of the big draws was the proximity to Qualcomm, developer of one of the major technologies used worldwide in high-speed cellular connections.
An estimated 4 million to 6 million people worldwide use wireless modems to access the Internet over cellular networks, Weinert said.
An estimated 5.5 million wireless modems will be shipped globally this year, up 45 percent from 3.8 million last year, according to In-Stat. It estimates that wireless modem sales will generate $869 million in revenue worldwide, up 33 percent from $651 million last year.
"The adoption rate has grown a lot because the user experience is good," said Jim Kirkpatrick, chief technology officer of Sierra Wireless' operation in Carlsbad. "The speeds are great. The reliability is there, and it's a familiar network."
Recently, Novatel Wireless said that because of strong sales, it expects third-quarter revenue of $53 million to $55 million, up from a July forecast of $51 million to $53 million. The company also said it expects earnings in the quarter ended Sept. 30 of 3 cents to 4 cents a share, bettering an earlier estimate of 2 cents to 4 cents a share.
Novatel Wireless said it had made "significant progress" by introducing four new products during the quarter and achieved "significant growth" in sales of embedded modules for laptops, which represented 15 percent of its sales for the quarter.
Following a "challenging" 2005, in which Sierra Wireless incurred a loss of $36.5 million because of increased competition and lower sales of embedded modules, the company began recovering this year.
In its second-quarter results, released in July, Sierra Wireless reported better-than-expected revenue of $55.2 million, up from the company's guidance of $52 million. Quarterly earnings were $3.8 million, compared with a net loss of $7.5 million for the same period a year ago.
Chier, the Kyocera Wireless spokesman, said the company's earnings are consolidated with those of Kyocera Corp. and not disclosed publicly. "From a modem standpoint, and overall business standpoint, we are in the midst of our most successful financial year to date," he said.
Wireless modems come in the form of PC cards that plug into a slot in the laptop or in the form of modules that are embedded inside the machine. The PC cards are generally sold at deeply discounted prices - or even provided at no charge - by cellular carriers to subscribers of high-speed data service.
The price for high-speed cellular data service runs between $50 and $80 a month for unlimited Web surfing. That prices some potential users out of the market. Verizon Wireless also offers day-to-day service at $15 for 24 hours of access.
"The prices are quite expensive," said Nogee of In-Stat. "It's companies buying it for their employees."
Weinert, the Novatel executive, said that if wireless carriers drop the cost of high-speed data service to $30 a month or so - a price point that he calls the "holy grail" for the industry - surfing the Web on a laptop over a cellular connection will hit the mainstream.
Even at current prices, businesses generally are able to recoup the cost of the service because it allows employees to work almost anywhere.
"The productivity gains that businesses have seen have been very strong," said Ken Muche, spokesman for Verizon Wireless. "It creates a more mobile work force, saves time and is more efficient."
Competition in the wireless modems industry is fierce, with Sierra, Novatel and Kyocera vying against Belgium wireless modem maker Option Wireless, Korean cell phone maker Pantech and Japanese-Swedish cell phone maker Sony Ericsson.
One way for the makers to differentiate themselves is by the wireless technologies they support. Kyocera Wireless' products, for instance, can be used by cellular carriers whose networks use Qualcomm's code-division multiple access technology. But Sierra Wireless and Novatel Wireless make products for CDMA networks as well as for Global System for Mobile Communications networks.
The next wave in wireless modems is embedded modules, but for now PC cards dominate. Sierra Wireless, for instance, said in its 2005 annual report that 70 percent of its revenue came from the sales of PC cards, compared with 13 percent from embedded modules.
Novatel Wireless supplies embedded modules to computer makers Dell, Sony, Toshiba and Panasonic. Sierra Wireless' embedded modules are used in laptops made by Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard and Fujitsu Siemens.
In September, Finnish cell phone maker Nokia and U.S. chip maker Intel announced a partnership to make embedded wireless modems for laptops. That same day, Sierra Wireless said it was collaborating with Intel on embedded modules for its ultra-mobile PC design.
Makers of everything from ATMs to vending machines to utility meters are using embedded modules to allow their products to send information to a corporate network over a cellular connection. Kyocera Wireless' embedded modules, for instance, are used in 40 devices, ranging from systems that track assets to parking meters.
"I don't think we've even hit the huge growth spurt for embedded modules yet," said Dean Fledderjohn, general manager of Kyocera Wireless' machine-to-machine business segment. "On the PC-card side, you're pretty much going to see it's a finite market, based on laptop sales. I think the number of connected machines will certainly outnumber the PCs."