Network-equipment provider 3Com has carved out a niche in the mainland supplying its technologies to schools and universities there. David Tang, president of 3Com China, said the company's 10-Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) products and wireless LAN equipment had been popular with mainland universities and colleges. According to International Data Corp, 3Com has a 30 per cent market share in the education sector. Two universities in Beijing - Renmin University and Beijing Science and Technology University - recently invested more than two million yuan (HK$1.8 million) in Layer 4 switches - from NIC as well as 3Com's newly introduced XRN Interconnect Kit - to build scalable networks to enable voice over Internet Protocol and multimedia programmes. The Chinese government's mandate to incorporate technology in universities is driving uptake of 10GbE and wireless local area network equipment in the mainland. According to a recent report from US-based firm Dell'Oro, the market for Ethernet switches has risen worldwide as a tough economy and price war have brought prices down, bringing Gigabit Ethernet to the mainstream last year. The firm estimates that the market for Ethernet switches will climb to US$18.9 billion in 2006 from US$11.5 billion in 2001. 'Many are leapfrogging technology. They are going from a very old type of telephone system, not data networks, to 10-Gigabit Ethernet installations, with wireless LAN extending into campuses,' said Mr Tang. Pricing is a big concern with mainland universities, as the technology budgets awarded by the government are modest relative to the number of students. The drop in prices for networking equipment over the past 18 months have made it possible for Renmin University to implement a high-speed network with current technology. 'The biggest value of the network to education is that it gives students greater opportunities for research, experimentation, and creation,' said Lin Xiao, professor of education technology at Renmin University. Mr Xiao said 3Com's equipment offered the best value versus performance. 'The XRN Interconnect Kit was one of the key pieces of technology from 3Com that persuaded us to use their products. It emphasised lower total cost of ownership and a flexible grow-as-we-grow concept,' he said. 3Com was once known as the king of switches, routers and hub, but in 2000 it withdrew from dealing in core network products. But after two years of restructuring and lowering operating costs, 3Com is now edging back. XRN, for Expandable Resilient Networking, is a 3Com initiative introduced in December to bring the company back into the business of providing switching technology for corporate users. Mr Tang said the XRN software could be used to build a Layer 3 network backbone incrementally by linking its stackable switches, or fixed configuration models as 3Com calls them, into a virtual core-routing device. The XRN Interconnect Kit installed in Renmin University can link two switches but Mr Tang said the software would be able to connect four switches by the end of the year. Cisco Systems, which dominates more than 60 per cent of the networking equipment market, also has a strong presence in the mainland. Its chief customers are very large enterprises and government bureaus which have larger information technology budgets and can afford Cisco's more pricey equipment. Smaller networking vendors such as 3Com, which has a 3 per cent worldwide market share in switches, have focused on small and medium-sized businesses and academic institutions. The oldest surviving networking company, 3Com has an additional advantage over Cisco - it has a large embedded base of customers, said Mr Tang.