TECHNOLOGY: A BRIEF HISTORY OF WIFI

Wi-Fi is everywhere nowadays; it has become an essential component to our lives. From a hub in every home to cloud services in our favourite coffee shops; Wi-Fi allows us to easily connect to the internet, surf social media and read our emails at a moment’s notice. However, Wi-Fi was a niche market in the late 90s, hitting shelves for consumers in 1997. But it only really took off in the early 2000s, with schools, business and homes adopting the technology as their primary method of connecting to the internet. Wi-Fi is essentially short-range wireless broadband, it originated from what was commonly referred to as the ‘garbage bands’: an area of the radio spectrum considered useless. To see how Wi-Fi has become so commonplace, we first must go back to 1985.

In 1985 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), America’s regulator of telecommunications, allowed several bands of wireless spectrum to be opened, without the need of a government licence. It was all thanks to the work of Michael Marcus; an engineer. He wanted three parts of spectrum used by industrial, scientific and medical bands to be opened up to the communications industry.

These bands were at 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz. They were already being used for equipment that utilized radio-frequency for other means. The FCC ruling allowed these bands to be utilised for communications technology as well, with the warning that they must get around interference from already existing equipment. The technology used to allow this is known as ‘spread spectrum’: it spreads a signal out over multiple frequencies instead of a having a well-defined frequency thus making the signal less susceptible to interference. Though this set the foundations for Wi-Fi nothing else happened until 1988.

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In 1988, NCR Corporation desired to connect wireless cash registers. They tasked one of their engineers: Victor Hayes, with the job of creating an industry standard. Thus inspired by the success of Ethernet (a wired networking standard). Hayes approached the Electrical and Electronics Engineers (EEE): which had homed the committee (802.3) that had defined Ethernet. Thus a new committee (802.11) was created, led by Victor Hayes. It wasn’t until almost a decade later in 1997 could all the differing parties agree on a standard for Wi-Fi technology: it had two megabits per second data transfer rates and used either frequency hopping or direct-sequence transmission as it means of avoiding interference.

Immediately engineers began work on two prototypes. The 802.11b which utilised the 2.4GHz band and the 802.11a which utilised the 5.8GHz band. These became valid in late 1999 and early 2000. The problem was that the specification of 802.11b was very complex and as such building compatible devices was a complicated task. Therefore, in August the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) was formed of six companies: Nokia, 3Com, Intersil, Aironet, Symbol and Lucent. This was later turned into Wi-Fi so as to be more ‘consumer-friendly’ due to its similarity to hi-fi.

In 1999 routers were produced to allow for Wi-Fi to be put in the consumer’s homes which became its main function. Apple put Wi-Fi chips in their laptops to allow Wi-Fi connections to MacBook’s, which was quickly followed by other technology companies so as to allow Wi-Fi for portable devices. Soon there were fee-based ‘hotspots’ in cities, allowing you to connect to Wi-Fi in coffee shops and fast food restaurants. Colleges and Schools were quick to adopt, creating Wi-Fi across campuses and school buildings.

In 2003 faster speeds and distance coverage were allowed by improving upon the original prototypes, even being able to compete with the fastest wired connections. In 2009 the 802.11n was finalised, it was faster and more reliable than ever before with more antennas and multiple streams of data. Through ‘multiple input multiple output’ data (MIMOs) multiple antennas were able to enhance communication of both the transmitter and the receiver.

However, the 2.4GHz extended range, which included devices such as baby monitors and Bluetooth connectivity meant that 2.4GHz became less appealing than 5.8GHz which was less crowded. Now every phone has Wi-Fi capabilities as well as roaming. Games consoles and Smart TVs have Wi-Fi chips to allow easy and fast connection to the internet. But this meant that Wi-Fi speeds had to keep improving to match the ever demanding number of Wi-Fi enabled devices. Wi-Fi also is much less secure than a wired Ethernet connection, allowing malicious intruders to access your network without a physical connection.

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To solve these problems encryption technologies were created to ensure the safety of your network. Starting with the relatively easy to break WEP but later improving to WPA and WPA2 encryption models. Simultaneous dual band routers were created that allowed for quick and easy switching between 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz depending on the distance you were from the router and the Wi-Fi chip your device had to ensure you never lost Wi-Fi connectivity.

With internet speeds increasing with Sky testing 1gb speeds in the UK city of York and Google unveiling 10gb Google Fibre as well as the gigabit Wi-Fi hotspots around New York. The future of Wi-Fi looks positive, with it having been almost universally adopted. Wi-Fi seems to only be improving; from the router technology to the level of encryption ensuring security, to the amount of megabits that can be transferred. With Wi-Fi in every home, school, across cities, the future of Wi-Fi looks bright.

If you are looking at setting up wireless in your business or increasing your current coverage across your premises, we install and maintain wireless devices. Contact us today for a free consultation.

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