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Selina Lo: Wired up for Wi-Fi in Asia

newsmaker Ruckus Wireless CEO on being a woman in IT, what starting a business in Silicon Valley is like, and why she's betting on Wi-Fi for the long term.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

Selina Lo

newsmaker "Wi-Fi, like Rodney Dangerfield, just doesn't get no respect", says Selina Lo. But she thinks that is about to change.

The CEO of Ruckus Wireless, a U.S.-based enterprise Wi-Fi player, has had much experience with Internet infrastructure. Having started and sold Centillion Networks to Bay Networks for US$145 million, the next company she was involved in, Alteon WebSystems, changed hands for a whopping US$7.8 billion from Nortel.

The firm makes a range of Wi-Fi modems equipped with proprietary "smart" antenna technology, touted to boost Wi-Fi signals and reliability automatically. It counts, among its customers, PCCW, Singapore's Budget Terminal airport and the Ascott Group of hotels.

Lo, originally from Hong Kong, is now eyeing Asia's connectivity market which she says provides the perfect landscape for what Ruckus has to offer.

In a chat with ZDNet Asia, the entrepreneur talks about being a woman in IT, what starting a business in Silicon Valley is like, and why she's laying her long-term bets on Wi-Fi.

ZDNet Asia: Do you find that the issue of being a woman in IT still crops up in business?
Lo: To be honest, part of what's allowed me to make it this far is to march forward and ignore the ideals of gender equality. But I do think I had to make more effort to prove myself.

When I went to [UCLA Berkeley] in the early 1980s, there would be two to three women out of a computer science class of 40 to 50 people. So obviously, the number of women in my generation who were able to get into IT was limited.

It's definitely better now. There is appeal for woman to get into the technical field, and it's about a 50-50 split in most universities.

Q: You're a U.S. company, but PCCW was your first customer. Did you target Asia specifically?
Actually, it just happened that way. It wasn't because I was from Hong Kong. It's just that PCCW is one of the more progressive service providers, and it tends to do things faster than [the competition], and it takes a little more risk than others.

I think, in Asia, you tend to find operators that are more aggressive. Asia moves quickly.

Q: What trends in Asia bode well for Ruckus?
I do believe that 2010 is the year you'll see smartphones come down in price to match feature phones, and you'll see them reach affordability for the general population.

Traditionally, cellular carriers have been afraid of traffic escaping from their cellular infrastructure, but the influx of smartphones is eating up so much bandwidth. All of a sudden, Wi-Fi presents a very cost-effective way to add capacity, and carriers are realizing Wi-Fi can augment their 3G networks.

Q: But carriers have invested so much in their cell networks. Would they prioritize Wi-Fi?
The old perception is that Wi-Fi is competitive to 3G, and people weren't interested in paying for hotspot services in the old days. So Wi-Fi was not seen as an independent business.

But with the load on cellular networks, more operators are bundling Wi-Fi with their mobile services. You find that people are more willing to use Wi-Fi if it's free and comes together with their [mobile subscriptions plans].

Q: Does the general consumer know or care how he or she is connected to the Internet?
That's a barrier that's going away, especially with the younger generation. They're familiar with using Wi-Fi at home and when they're out on their mobile game consoles. So they know to switch it on and that it is a faster [mode of connectivity].

Wi-Fi is often the Rodney Dangerfield of connectivity--it doesn't get any respect because it's unlicensed spectrum. But it has exceeded Ethernet in the home, and it's ubiquitous in the enterprise.

We have found that users are very happy to use Wi-Fi with public hotspots, especially when they're sitting down, knowing they will get 10 times the performance [of cellular networks].

Q: Infrastructure is still a challenge in Asia and WiMax is seen as an option for last-mile connectivity.
WiMax has been touted to solve the connectivity gap, but the problem is that there are very few devices which support it. There are practically no phones with WiMax built-in. And for laptops you either need to rely on dongles or CPEs (customer-premises equipment). That has made WiMax too expensive in a lot of places.

The arrival of 802.11n is also making Wi-Fi more applicable to emerging markets, to serve municipalities with more throughput, more affordably. We have an Indian operator customer running a 15,000 Wi-Fi mesh over 15 cities, to offer 0.5 megabit to 1 megabit broadband service to residents. That is a proof point that this technology is capable of offering a competitive service to the 4G networks.

Furthermore, usually only the Fortune 500 can afford to have specialty Wi-Fi personnel. Because our products self-optimize, we thought we would take our products to smaller companies, particularly in Southeast Asia. The market here really needs a lower price point for its SMBs (small and midsize businesses), and where the likes of Aruba and Cisco do not service.

Q: Do mobile operators see Wi-Fi as an interim option to LTE?
I don't believe that Wi-Fi is short-term, even when operators upgrade to LTE. Wi-Fi is here to stay because it is so much cheaper to deploy and operate.

Even as cellular technology progresses to LTE, Wi-Fi standards continue to climb in speed and reliability.

Q: Having started companies in Silicon Valley, would you choose other places in the world next?
It depends on what sort of business you're setting up. The advances in the Internet, with respect to widgets and mobile application development, have opened up innovation to a much wider audience. You aren't bound by geography anymore, and you could as easily build a social-networking company in Asia as you could in Silicon Valley.

But Silicon Valley provides better access to venture capital, and that opens doors more easily. If you need a lot of start-up investment for a telecoms company, you're probably better off starting in Silicon Valley.

Q: Do you build up companies with the goal of a big sale?
You need to focus on building your start-up to be independent. If along the way there's a merger opportunity that looks attractive, consider it. But that should never be a goal.

If your goal is always to look for an acquirer, you would never be able to sell your company for a big profit, because you are not in the commanding position. Never build a company to be acquired.

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