TECH: Tonga becomes proving ground for wireless technology

From: Chris Rasch (
Date: Sat Feb 24 2001 - 20:56:11 MST

San Jose Mercury News
Monday, July 3, 2000

TONGA, a monarchy, is no cradle of
democracy. The U.S. holiday today is also the
king's birthday. But on this Fourth of July,
the multi-island nation in the South Pacific
will mark another kind of milestone, a move
toward leapfrogging the developed world in its

Dewayne Hendricks will be there. The longtime
Silicon Valley resident is leading the project
to deploy a nationwide wireless network based
on Internet communications standards. If it
works as planned, Tonga's 100,000 residents
will end up with a system that combines voice,
video and data running at data-transfer speeds
that the rest of the world will envy.

For Hendricks, Tonga is a proving ground for
wireless technology he and his colleagues
believe could shatter the status quo
here. It's also an example of what he calls
``regulatory activism,'' working inside and
outside the system to make changes.

Dave Farber, chief technologist at the Federal
Communications Commission, is intrigued by
Hendricks' work. ``He is trying to advance the
field and show the world what can be done when
regulation is relaxed and technology tried,''
Farber says.

Why Tonga? It's a monarchy, for one
thing. When the royal family decides to do
something, it doesn't have to convene a

The nation also has an aging and inadequate
telecommunications infrastructure, but not
enough money to repair and upgrade the
wire-based system. There is plenty of demand
-- an eight-year wait for phone service,
Hendricks notes. Without regulatory
restraints or ``legacy systems,'' there's a
great opportunity to start from scratch.

Hendricks, who started his technology career
in mainframe programming in the 1970s, has
been working with wireless Internet access for
years. He and his colleagues are convinced
that what's called an ultra-wideband,
fixed-wireless communications system can
provide the backbone for Tonga's future
needs. For more information on the technology
they're using, check out the Web site for the
Dandin Group (, which is headed
by Hendricks and is the lead contractor to
Tonga's national phone system for the project.

Since 1996, Hendricks has had the technology
running here. He put up antennas on Mount
Allison, which is in a line of sight to his
Fremont home. About 30 people in the Bay Area
are connecting wirelessly to the Net via the
system, he said -- and some of them are
influential in the technology field.

Enter the crown prince of Tonga. He'd been
wanting to upgrade the nation's
telecommunications capabilities, Hendricks
said, and he heard about the network through
the tech grapevine. He visited Silicon Valley,
liked what he saw and decided to give it a

Today marks the beginning of a transition in
Tonga, the handoff of the old licensing system
to the new one. ``We'll be able to start
construction of our satellite ground
stations,'' Hendricks says. By the end of the
year, he expects to have completed part of the
overall project's mobile-communications

So what does Tonga have to do with the United
States? Plenty, if Hendricks gets his way.

For one thing, he's planning to install
similar systems on Native American lands in
North America -- places that are notoriously
and shamefully underserved by our
telecommunications industry. Three pilot
projects are slated to start this fall.

``What I try to do is go to places that don't
have incumbency issues,'' he says, referring
to the way existing telecom companies always
try to thwart new ideas that they can't
dominate themselves.

Proving the concept will create demand, he
believes. That, in turn, will make it
difficult for regulators and industry to block
the development of new technologies that
threaten the status quo.

Hendricks isn't doing this solely because he
believes it's a good idea, of course. He
stands to make plenty of money if everything
works as he expects.

But by working the inside and outside the
system -- inside, he's a member of the FCC's
Telecommunications Advisory Committee and
calls himself a ``wireless wonk'' -- Hendricks
is striving to achieve some worthy goals. I
hope he succeeds.

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