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Executive Editor

More than just a modem man

Mar 08, 20045 mins

Maybe Brent Townshend would have wound up in court no matter what he invented. Since creating 56K bit/sec modem technology in the mid-1990s, the California engineer has spent a lot of time suing companies that don’t license it upfront and has amassed a fortune in the process.

Maybe Brent Townshend would have wound up in court no matter what he invented.

Since creating 56K bit/sec modem technology in the mid-1990s, the California engineer has spent a lot of time suing companies that don’t license it upfront and has amassed a fortune in the process. Although he had been out of the spotlight in recent years, Townshend reached an out-of-court settlement in December with Analog Devices over alleged misuse of his technology and has a court date in July with Cisco, Intel and others.

But the little-known story behind his fast modem invention is that he came up with the idea in 1993 while building an appliance for downloading music from servers over direct-dial phone connections. His Music Fax system looked to be a precursor of file-sharing systems – and lawsuit magnets – such as Napster and Kazaa.

Working on Music Fax, Townshend recognized that modem speeds were too slow for real-time playing of songs. Early MPEG could transmit good sound at 50K to 60K bit/sec, but the fastest modems topped out at 33.6K bit/sec.

Townshend noticed that downloads from servers connected to the phone network via digital links, such as T-1s, could reach 56K bit/sec because they didn’t have to undergo speed-sapping analog-to-digital conversions. Uploads required these conversions, limiting speeds to 33.6K bit/sec. He patented technology essential to making fast-down, slow-up modems.

“I said, ‘This is an easy thing to do. I can just license this to people that are in the modem business. I don’t have to start competing with them or set up my own distribution,'” Townshend says.

His patent claim came as a horrible surprise to International Telecommunication Union members working on a 56K bit/sec modem standard in 1996. At a meeting, word came out that Townshend not only filed for a patent but had already licensed his ideas to modem maker U.S. Robotics.

“Everyone was a little upset that this pops out at what felt like a late time in the process and hadn’t come up to the surface before,” says Ken Krechmer, a member of that ITU committee. “It really created an enormous mess.”

When Townshend showed up at the next ITU meeting, everyone took note. “I wanted to get a sense of the guy and what he thought he was doing,” Krechmer says. “I got the impression of a good, solid technical guy, a good applied mathematician who saw that there was a really interesting way to solve a specific problem and decided to patent it.”

The 44-year-old Townshend, who has licensed his technology for millions of devices, presented reasonable terms and the ITU work went ahead. (Licensing fees have dropped from as much as $2.50 per modem to as little as 22 cents per modem between 1999 and today.)

He wouldn’t detail how much he has reaped in modem license fees over the years. But with analysts estimating that roughly 100 million 56K modems were sold in each of the past two years, figure he’s getting at least $22 million a year in license fees based on a 22-cent fee per soft modem.

Born to invent

The path that led him to that day started back in high school in his hometown of Toronto. He developed a cottage industry – building signal-processing boxes for University of Toronto researchers so their lab computers could talk to their electronic measurement gear.

“These people must have been amazed at the deal they were getting because they’d come and get me to build the thing and I’d spend a month and charge them $400,” Townshend says.

He went on to earn a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1987. His thesis adviser, Robert White, says Townshend’s contribution to a prosthesis project enabled the research group to focus electrical impulses on human auditory nerves without having the electrodes come in contact with the nerves themselves.

“He made a very clever realization that an existing principle would apply to our case,” White says. “It was one of those ‘why didn’t I think of that’ kind of ideas.”

Also in 1987 Townshend joined Bell Labs, where he worked until 1990 studying speech recognition and low-bit-rate speech encoding to make the most of cell-phone bandwidth. Then he moved to Montreal to start Townshend Computer Tools, which developed Dat Link, a signal processor for making high-quality audio recordings that it sold through several companies, including Entropic Research.

He also developed a system called Griffe for certifying the authenticity of faxes. But Music Fax and the 56K bit/sec modem came along, derailing Griffe.

In 1993 in the midst of the Music Fax work he moved Townshend Computer Tools to Menlo Park, Calif., where he shared space with the West Coast office of Entropic, which was run by Jared Bernstein.

When Bernstein incorporated Ordinate, a speech-assessment software company in 1997, he lured Townshend to serve as CEO. Ordinate’s PhonePass product is used to evaluate how well non-native English speakers have learned to speak the language.

Bernstein says his colleague has changed very little since they met. He dresses a little better. Soon after Townshend started licensing modems, he bought a new home, but not an ostentatious one. Bernstein says a film crew that shot a documentary on Canadians who made it big in Silicon Valley didn’t film Townshend’s house because it didn’t fit with the image of success they were portraying.

His former adviser, White, says Townshend remains modest. Townshend attended a reunion of graduate students but never let on the level of success he achieved with the modems.