A short history of the creation of the world's first public wireless data network
In 1987, the Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club was facing a problem. The volume of bets being placed on its Telebet system was threatening to bring down the telephone system on race day. Another way was needed to handle the incredible demand generated by punters in Hong Kong.
An RFP was issued for a Customer Input Terminal (CIT), a hand-held betting terminal that would be capable of off-line bet entry, and then rapid, secure transmission to the Club's computer system.
At the time, I was running a PC software and integration company that I had started after leaving the Canadian Trade Commissioner Service (TCS). While the PC business was very good, it was obvious that large volume producers were going to dominate.
As a next step, I was looking for a way to get involved with the new field of wireless telephony. I had always been interested in the use of computers for communication, and had started the first BBS (bulletin board system) in Hong Kong.
The RHKJC RFP triggered an idea. I had met a number of high-tech companies from Canada during my time as a Trade Commissioner. I knew that a technology existed in Canada that had been created for the RCMP to query the National Criminal Records database from their patrol cars. I wondered if the system used to accomplish this wireless data link could be used to solve the RHKJC problem.
I contacted a number of different companies to see if it would be possible to put a consortium together to make a bid. The reaction was a giant yawn. This was not entirely surprising. Having met hundreds of Canadian companies during my time in TCS, it had become obvious that few firms had the appetite for entrepreneurial risk outside their existing environment.
Plan B was to approach local Hong Kong contacts and treat the companies as just suppliers.
Hutchison Telecom, the newly formed cellular unit of the huge Hutchison Whampoa hong, was led by a Canadian by the name of Rick Seimens. I was impressed by the speed and scale of the enterprise he was building to introduce portable cellular phones, and decided to approach him with the idea for a Jockey Club system.
Rick agreed to hear me out, and over the next months, I generated a business plan that started from the Jocky Club idea, but grew to become something more - a full public wireless data service that would carry not just bets for the Club, but also public messages (wireless email) and commercial traffic (dispatch and fleet management).
There were a couple of problems of course. I had to find a supplier that would be willing to build the network infrastructure to my design. I had to apply for and receive a grant of radio spectrum from the Hong Kong Government, and I had to persuade the Jockey Club that wireless betting was something they should get involved with. Luckily, I was too young to know better.
This page was last updated on: September 10, 2017
All contents of this webpage and linked material copyright Waleed Hanafi (c) 2005.