WideBand Corporation – Gallatin
Big ideas from a small town
The phone number of Joseph Billings, president of WideBand Corporation carries an area code 202 prefix — the same prefix as the White House.
“No, I’m not in Washington,” laughs Billings. “I’m right here in Gallatin,” a town of about 1,800 located 70 miles northeast of Kansas City in rural Daviess County. Billings’ crystal-clear voice is carried by voice over Internet protocol technology, redirected by lightning-fast WideBand Ethernet gigabit (GB) switches to a 202 prefix. Why? To make it a local call for some customers — in this case, the U.S. Army.
“Every once in a while I have to explain that I can’t come over in 20 minutes,” he says.
WideBand Corporation is believed to be the sole remaining domestic manufacturer of GB Ethernet switches, a technology WideBand helped invent. It is also the leading domestic manufacturer of high-performance, low-latency network components. The firm currently holds six patents.
Still with us? Maybe a word about “latency” would help. In the computer network world, latency is the time it takes for a switch to forward a data packet from an entrance to an exit port. The lower the latency, the smoother and faster an application is. Latency can cause that annoying stutter in videos and garble in VoIP audio that can be a nuisance to most users. But in some military applications, nanoseconds of latency can mean the difference between life and death.
With the help of Larry Lee, director of the SBTDC at Northwest Missouri State University, WideBand has gone on to secure a Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant worth nearly $730,000 from the Army to develop additional technology that will allow for more accurate testing of everything from a car transmission to an air-to-air missile.
The company is the brainchild of Billings’ father and current company chairman Dr. Roger Billings, a bona fide genius and one of the true unsung heroes of the post-World War II world. Among many other innovations, Roger Billings developed what’s believed to be the first hydrogen-powered car as a high school science project; the first hydrogen fuel-cell powered car; one of the first personal computers; the program that was the precursor to WordPerfect; the double-sided floppy drive; and a method of sharing data on a computer network known as Functionally Structured Distribution, the forerunner of today’s almost universal client-server computing.
WideBand Corporation, founded by the elder Billings in 1994, was one of the first companies on the planet to develop a GB data rate networking product that could operate over standard cables. Financing this technology was not a problem in the halcyon 90s, Billings says, as investors flocked to the then-new hardware. In more recent years, he says, that kind of investment has slowed. WideBand knew it needed to diversify, especially in the public sector.
“Larry [Lee] gave us a lot of guidance,” says Billings, in a painstaking review of Army, Air Force and other potential contracts for best fit and helping write the sprawling Army SBIR proposal. Developing the technology from SBIR and other government proposals is far from simple; WideBand started its SBIR process more than two years ago, and is still exploring avenues for commercialization.
Sales increases have also helped fund product development. Customers include Visa and Microsoft, the Universities of Missouri and California, three branches of the military, NASA and the Departments of Homeland Security and Energy.
Competing against cheap gigabit Ethernet hardware isn’t easy, Billings says.
“The only way we can compete as a U.S. manufacturer is through constant innovation,” he says. “That’s the name of the game. Change is the only constant, and that’s even more true in computer networking. Embracing that change is part of what’s kept us around all these years, and we’re proud that we are doing our own manufacturing right here.”
All in little Gallatin.
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