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Tales In Tech History: Wi-Fi

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Wi-Fi has its origins in the telecom market, and arguably its popularity neutred the absolute power of telecom giants

Many people nowadays cannot fathom a world without Wi-Fi or other forms of online connectivity, but it was not long ago when if you had to be tethered to a desk, PC, and a very musical router in order to go online.

Wi-Fi has established itself as a critical element to many people’s lives, and is an integral component for many homes and and on the High Street and even now aeroplanes, despite frustrations about its range and consistency.

The last few years, more and more free Wi-Fi hotspots are being made available by businesses for when a person is out and about, which in turn has led to a whole new set of security worries.

Wireless, Wi-Fi © Andrea Danti Shutterstock 2012History Of Wi-Fi

It may surprise people to know that Wi-Fi has been around longer than most people think. The Internet itself only really gathered traction for everyday use among common folk in the 1990s, but Wi-Fi actually pre-dates that.

Wi-Fi was essentially born in the era of Thatcher and Regan. It came about because of the American government, namely the Federal Communications Commission (the US telecoms regulator), which in 1985 decided to free up valuable spectrum after it allowed the wireless frequencies 900MHz, 2.4GHz, and 5.8GHz to be used without the need for a government licence.

Until that time, those radio bands were used by household appliances such as microwaves (which uses radio waves to heat food), and were assumed to have no practical application in communications.

Indeed that radio spectrum was widely referred to as “the garbage bands”, and those spectrum bands was mostly associated as industrial, scientific and medical bands.

The FCC move was a real game changer, as until that time, there was very little unlicensed spectrum, except for ham-radio channels for example. The FCC decided to open those spectrum bands for communications purposes as well, providing they avoid interference from other equipment by using “spread spectrum” technology.

Spectrum spectrum tech was originally developed for military use, and essentially it spreads a radio signal out over a wide range of frequencies, in contrast to the usual approach of transmitting on a single, well-defined frequency.

Wi-Fi

Industry Standard

Despite the 1985 decision by the FCC, noting much happened in these spectrum bands for a few years except for the development of proprietary WLAN tech from a number of players. But vendors realised that if they were to replicate the success of the Ethernet standard and achieve wide spread adoption, an industry-wide approach was needed.

Enter NCR Corp, which in 1998 wanted a way to use the unlicensed spectrum to allow their ATM machines to communicate. The firm asked one of its engineers, Victor Hayes, to develop a standard.

Hayes teamed up with Bruce Tuch of Bell Labs, and the two men approached the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), where a committee called 802.3 had defined the Ethernet standard.

This approach resulted in the creation of a new committee called 802.11. After many years of bickering over what would make up a new industry-wide specification, the committee in 1997 finally agreed a basic specification for the wireless technology which allowed for a data transfer rate of two megabits per second,.

From this basic specification, two standards were ratified in 1999. One variant was 802.11b (which operates in the 2.4GHz band) and 802.11a (which operates in the 5.8GHz band).

Apple was an early adopter of Wi-Fi after it introduced Wi-Fi as an option on its new iBook computers, under the brand name AirPort.

Other computer-makers quickly followed suit, and the rest as they say is history.

Speed Wars

Since that time a new variant of Wi-Fi technology, known as 802.11g arrived, that could achieve speeds of up to 54 megabits per second in the 2.4GHz band.

More recently, two other variants have arrived, namely Wireless N and Wireless AC.

Wireless N operates on the bands 2.4 Ghz and 5. Ghz and was released in 2009 and is capable of speeds of up to 600 Mbps. The newer standard, Wireless AC, operating on the 5Ghz band, arrived in 2014 and offers even greater speeds thanks to the use of MIMO.

Earlier this month TP-Link revealed is to release the world’s first 802.11ad Wi-Fi router later this year, which uses frequencies in the 60GHz band capable of delivering 4.6Gbps connections.

When it is combined with existing 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, can provide users with 7Gbps speeds, so long as they have a fast enough broadband connection.

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