The fascinating history of wifi – from Hawaii to Mars

March 18, 2019 Steven Heinsius

Life without wifi would be unimaginable. The positive impact of a mobile internet can be felt throughout society from law enforcement, to health and education and, of course, in business, where it has fundamentally changed the way we work. 

In this article, we chart the history – and future–  of wireless networks, where, one day, we could see wifi reach as far as Mars.

1971: ALOHANET

The introduction of wifi can be trailed all the way to Hawaii in 1971, when ALOHANET connected the Hawaiian Islands with a UHF wireless packet network. This was an early forerunner to Ethernet and the IEEE 802.11 protocols.

1985: Garbage bands are opened

Retrospectively, the decision taken by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to open several bands of wireless spectrum, paved the way for wifi to become a reality. ‘Garbage bands’ of spectrum at 900MHz, 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz had been allocated to equipment like microwaves, which used radio-frequency energy for purposes other than communications.

1991: WaveLAN paves the way

The NCR Corporation with AT&T invented the precursor to 802.11, initially intended for use in cashier systems. The first wireless products were under the name WaveLAN, credited with inventing wifi.

1992: The wifi signal is un-smeared – by accident

A key patent used in wifi was developed by mistake in a CSIRO research project. In 1992 and 1996, CSIRO obtained patents which would later be used in wifi to ‘un-smear’ the signal.

1993: Hotspots invented

The concept of public access local area networks, now called hotspots, were first proposed by Henrik Sjodin at the NetWorld+Interop conference in San Francisco.

1997: IEEE 802.11

When two machines communicate with each other, they need certain standards that define them to enable them communicate. IEEE 802.11 refers to the set of standards that define communication for wireless local area networks. The first version of the protocol was released in 1997, providing up to 2 Mbit/s link speeds.

1998: Wifi hotspots become a reality

Wireless ISP provider MobileStart is credited with being the first to place a wifi hotspot in an airport, hotel or a coffee shop.

1999: The Wi-Fi Alliance

Up until this point, IEEE 802.11 was used as a name for the technology. Several companies came together to form a global non-profit with the target of driving the best user experience using wireless networking technology. In 2000, brand-consulting firm Interbrand was hired to come up with a name for the technology – they came up with ‘Wi-Fi’.

The non-profit then dubbed itself The Wi-Fi Alliance. Phil Belanger, a founding member, suggested that ‘Wi-Fi’ was a pun on ‘hi-fi’. Interbrand also came up with the Wi-Fi logo to indicate that a product had been certified for interoperability. It represents Yin and Yang to signal interoperability of all wifi-certified products.

There were two ratifications to the 802.11 standard. Both 802.11a and 802.11b came to market. 802.11a in the 5 GHz band had far more channels and bandwidth. But it was 802.11b that became popular with only 11Mbps. The reason for this was the coverage. The 2.4 GHz (lower frequency) had a much larger ‘cell’ than the higher 5 GHz frequency.

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2000: 802.11b becomes the definitive WLAN tech

Products with the 802.11b standards appeared on the market in early 2000. It has a maximum raw data rate of 11 Mbit/s. As a result of the increase in throughput of the standard compared to the original, as well as the reduction in price, it became the definitive wireless LAN technology.

2003: Intel's Centrino and 802.11g becomes a standard

The 802.11g standard – with an average of 22 Mbit/s throughput – became rapidly adopted, even before ratification, because of the need for higher data rates, as well as reduction in manufacturing costs.

Using an advanced form of spread-spectrum technology called orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), it can achieve speeds of up to 54 Mbit/s in the 2.4 GHz band, providing the same data rate as 802.11a, but at a much longer distance. This was the main reason why 802.11g became so popular.

Intel introduced its Centrino platform in 2003, which meant that new laptops shipped with native, onboard wifi. So, no longer did you have to buy a separate (expensive) CardBus (PCMCIA) card. Wifi was included as standard.

2007: Laptops replace desktops

A watershed moment in mobile computing: laptops replaced desktops as the go-to work computer. Before 2007 the default was a desktop computer. After 2007 the default was a laptop. Suddenly, wifi became much more important than Ethernet.

Another important event this year was the introduction of 802.11i as a standard. This is what we know today as WPA2 encryption, replacing WEP and WPA (2004) as the security mechanism. WPA2 dramatically improved the reliability of wifi security and thus increased the acceptance and adoption of wifi in business and enterprises.

2008: iPhone 3G sparks mass adoption

iPhone 3G, the second generation of iPhone, is introduced with a true native wifi client. This sparks the mass adoption of smartphones and begins the ‘Wifi era’.

2009: Speeds top 500Mbps

802.11n is approved in October, for usage in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, with speeds of up to 600Mbps. But, even though 600Mbps was part of the 802.11n standard, there was never a product brought to market that actually supported it. The reason for this is that it requires four spatial streams… And there were no clients that had that.

2010: iPad and BYOD

iPad is introduced. And proved to be much more than just a big iPhone. A new term hits the market: “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD). People getting their first smartphones and tablets that ‘have it working at home’ now come to the office and tell IT to ‘make it work’.

2013: Wi-Fi 5

802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) introduced into the market providing up to 6.9 Gbps in the 5 GHz band.

2014: Smart homes and cities

Smart home appliances and smart city applications start becoming the norm – with wifi enabled thermostats, light bulbs, home security, monitoring and control systems, kitchen appliances, automotive products and wearable devices out on the market. The same year, Apple announced that its iPhone 6 would support wifi calling.

2016: Wifi for IoT

The Wi-Fi Alliance endorsed 802.11ah for IoT connectivity, dubbing it HaLow. The purpose would be to create extended-range networks in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz space, with data speeds up to 347Mbps. While High Efficiency Wireless (HEW) was touted as building on HaLow to add additional Internet of Things (IoT) friendly features.

2019: One access point, multiple devices

802.11ax comes equipped with orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA), which enables multiple devices to share the same access point and the same wifi channel at the same time – this would be particularly helpful for large numbers of devices sharing the same access point. It will be formally ratified by IEEE in 2019 and aims to improve the performance in dense areas such as schools, sports stadiums and airports.

2020: Battery life improvements

Aimed at improving the battery life of devices and sensors within an IoT network, 802.11ba, could be approved by 2020.

2022: Half a billion wifi hotspots

Globally, Cisco forecasts nearly 549 million public wifi hotspots by 2022, up from 124 million hotspots in 2017, a fourfold increase.

2025: Unlimited power!

Mike Ryan, founder of Fusion Futures, believes that 4G and 5G networks will become obsolete by 2025 with the introduction of unlimited speed wifi networks.

2030: Mars and beyond?

SpaceX founder Elon Musk is on a mission to colonize Mars; might we see wifi access on the red planet by 2030?

Learn about routing, switching, security, wireless, and IP telephones in our Small Business Networking Essentials eBook.

See the story of wifi for yourself in our History of Wifi infographic.

About the Author

Steven Heinsius

Steven is the Sales Lead for Europe, Middle East, Africa & Russia for the 'SDA100'. The 100 High Priority Customers adopting Intent Based Networking. Together with his team he helps customers successfully adopt the new IBN Networking technology. Steven is a well known speaker at events and seminars and was awarded the distinguished speaker award five times.

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