Wi-Fi. An invention that freed us from the shackles of wired technology. The world, and the global economy has been using wireless communication for hundreds of years now. Remember the smoke signals and the signals conveyed through giant fires on mountain tops? These, too were methods of wireless communication.
The idea of wireless communication was first theorized in 1929 by Nikola Tesla. He predicted that “one day we might be able to communicate with each other wirelessly in an instant with devices that could fit in our pockets.”
Towards the turn of the century, Guglielmo Marconi introduced the first commercially usable apparatus for long-distance wireless communication furthering the work done by scientists like Bose, Hertz, and Tesla.
Then came Hedy Lamarr, a sharp and inventive actress who patented a “frequency hopping spread spectrum technology” – the basis of Wi-Fi today. Like all good inventions, this method soon found its way into military hands. The military developed this to guide torpedoes in World War II. Decades later, someone thought of using it for more peaceful applications like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
It all started with HELLO
Technically, Wi-Fi emerged with Aloha – ALOHANET. The first documented wireless data packet transfer between 4 islands without a satellite. This was achieved in 1971 under the supervision of Norman Abramson, a computer scientist with the help of the University of Hawaii. They used a relatively newer technology at the time, known as Ultra High-Frequency radio waves (UHF). A connection was established between 7 computers, and data was sent in packet format as it is sent even today.
Federal Communication Commission (FCC)
Until Alohanet, the communication bands were not open for public use and were under the guardianship of the FCC. Then came a surprising move from the FCC in 1985. they opened 3 bands unlicensed use(public use). These included the 900MHz, 2.4GHz, and 5.8GHz.
These bands were called “garbage bands” as these bands were already in use by small devices like microwaves. But it was enough to make companies IBM, NCR, and AT&T to develop their own devices that can make use of these bands and were the precursors to WI-FI as we know it today.
AT&T won this race by releasing the first complete hardware system in 1988 that made use of the 3 released bands. The product was known as WaveLAN and was used for cashier systems primarily. It got a max speed of upto 2 Mbps.
A committee was formed in 1990 under the organization of IEEE. These people were responsible for the formation of the ethernet standards. And those brilliant people came up with a group of rules and standards known as “802.11”. Vic Hayes was the Chairman of this committee and is often known as the ‘father of Wi-Fi’.
It took them 7 years, and in 1997 the first 802.11 standards used the frequency hopping method. Users could utilize this and get upto 1 or 2 megabits per second. Newer and improved standards started rolling out in the following years, even changing the core approach of frequency hopping.
The Great Alliance
In 1999, 6 major vendors took it upon themselves to promote WI-FI and its application. Hence formed what is known as the ‘Wi-Fi alliance.’ The top contenders were the names “trapeze,” “hornet” “dragonfly” and “WI-FI.”
They adopted the word Wi-Fi as they thought it sounded similar to ‘HI-FI,’ a fashionable word in the world of music at the time. And no, the word Wi-Fi was never meant to be an acronym for something else. It simply stuck and was less of a mouthful than IEEE 802.11. Though many have tried to popularize the full form as “wireless fidelity,” but that isn’t correct.
This alliance is now composed of thousands, if not millions of vendors promoting Wi-Fi as a brand. They certify various Wi-Fi capable products. However, the IEEE committee is still in-charge of standardization topics.
Wireless Takes Off!
In 1999 Apple Inc. rolled out its brand new product – the iBook G3. This was the first laptop with integrated Wi-Fi for consumers. Other major players soon followed suit. Mobile phones were yet another major factor that helped to promote Wi-Fi technology. Of course, people wished for a mobile phone that need not be connected to wires for internet access.
Between 2000 and 2005, more than 100 million internet-connected devices were sold almost every year. You can imagine the number of devices connected to the internet right now. Wi-Fi came as a series of small and unrelated inventions and took a lot of time to get where it is now. But it took the world by a storm like no other technology.
Various protocols such as the 802.11B, 802.11A, 802.11G came out. 802.11B increased the speed upto 11 Mbps. 802.11A released just a month after, took the speeds upto 54 Mbps.
What’s Next For Wi-Fi?
As amazing as the tech is, it’s still growing, Wi-Fi has practically replaced the ethernet (wired internet) for most consumer usage. Now Wi-Fi is on the verge of being replaced itself. Li-Fi (light fidelity) is the new buzzword. It involves data transmission from LED light sources – the ones you use at home, offices, or literally anywhere else.
From the very first trickles of data to the rapid strides of Big Data we’re surfing today, Wi-Fi has been a powerful surfboard in the ocean of information around the globe. The IEEE 802.11 Working Group is still going strong, continually uncovering better, faster, more reliable ways to bring us Wi-FI. It continues to mould the ways we interpret the world around us.