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A Short History of Wi-Fi

By Patricia Hume, COO

A change will do you good

I recently delivered an address at the MVNOs World Congress in Nice, entitled “Wi-Fi Has Crossed the Chasm: Have you? A Change Would Do You Good.” As you might imagine, the audience there included a healthy dollop of MVNOs from around the world. But my talk wasn’t only relevant to those MVNOs. It’s important to us all, because we all need to be connected. And in this day and age, that tends to mean being connected to Wi-Fi. So here’s a short history of Wi-Fi acceptance and adoption.

In 1991, Geoffry Moore wrote a book called Crossing the Chasm. It’s maybe a weird place to start a history of Wi-Fi – Moore’s book is about product adoption and how markets adopt products. But crossing the chasm proves an apt metaphor for where Wi-Fi is today, because it is no longer a technology for innovators or early adopters, instead a technology that has mainstreamed and is an essential element of mobile data consumption everywhere, at every moment, and for everyone.

In other words, Moore shows that technology innovation is fascinating.  Ideas spawn from the most random places. And while we think that certain technologies are “new ideas,” in reality most of the time the idea has been developing and evolving through innovation and iteration.

I’m focusing on Wi-Fi. What is the history of Wi-Fi? Where did it all begin?

It all starts with Hedy Lamarr, née Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler. Born in 1914, Lamarr was an Austrian and American film actress.  But more importantly she was an inventor. Let’s look at her bio.

Along with co-inventor George Anthiel,  Lamarr developed a Secret Communications System to help combat the Nazis in World War II. It involved manipulating radio frequencies at irregular intervals between transmission and reception. Her invention would form an unbreakable code to prevent classified messages from being intercepted by enemy personnel.

Lamarr and Anthiel received a patent in 1941. But it wasn’t until the Cuban Missile Crisis that the invention garnered use, then emerging in numerous, later military applications.

Outside of these notable military interventions, the “spread spectrum” technology propelled the later revolution in digital communications. And that’s what made Wi-Fi possible.

But Wi-Fi would certainly not exist without government action, which came in 1985. As The Economist relays in a 2004 article, the FCC made a landmark, heretofore unprecedented decision to open several bands of wireless spectrum to use without the need for a government license. As detailed in The Economist:

Other than the ham-radio channels, there was very little unlicensed spectrum. But the FCC, prompted by a visionary engineer on its staff, Michael Marcus, took three chunks of spectrum from the industrial, scientific and medical bands and opened them up to communications entrepreneurs.

These so-called “garbage bands”, at 900MHz, 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz, were already allocated to equipment that used radio-frequency energy for purposes other than communications: microwave ovens, for example, which use radio waves to heat food. The FCC made them available for communications purposes as well, on the condition that any devices using these bands would have to steer around interference from other equipment.

What’s important to remember here is that the nothing much happened after the 1985 ruling. Wi-Fi only took flight after the creation of an industry-wide standard. But,

Inspired by the success of Ethernet, a wireline-networking standard, several vendors realised that a common wireless standard made sense too. Buyers would be more likely to adopt the technology if they were not “locked in” to a particular vendor’s products.

Among those actors were NCR Corporation in 1988. They wanted to use the unlicensed spectrum to connect wireless cash registers. Doesn’t seem too far off the contemporary IoT model. One of their engineers, Victor Hayes, teamed up with Bruce Tuch at Bell Labs and together they met with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), where a committee, 802.3, had formerly defined the Ethernet standard. At the IEEE, a new committee called 802.11 would then convene, with Hayes as chairman.

But market fragmentation meant delay. Only in 1997 did the committee agree on a basic specification, allowing for data transfer at two megabits per second, using either of two spread-spectrum technologies, frequency hopping or direct-sequence transmission. What do the two do?

  • The first avoids interference from other signals by jumping between radio frequencies
  • The second spreads the signal out over a wide band of frequencies.

Indeed, since the 1940s, Wi-Fi has come a long way. In that same The Economist article I’ve been referencing, the writer decried that “Wi-Fi is a short-range technology that will never be able to provide the blanket coverage of a mobile network. Worse, subscribe to one network of hotspots (in coffee-shops, say) and you may not be able to use the hotspot in the airport.”

Fast forward a little more than a decade and you have analysts singing an altogether different tune, “No longer an enemy, WiFi is now an ally of mobile service providers. By reducing MVNO costs and improving the subscriber experience with faster speeds, better pricing, and improved app functionality, WiFi and MVNOs are a logical, profitable match.” Boy, do things change. Now, at iPass, for one, we offer access to over 60 million hotspots worldwide and growing. And our big data indicates that there are hundreds of millions of more out there.

As more and more data is consumed, it is important to ensure that customers can easily, securely and invisibly connect to Wi-Fi or cellular. As fascinating as this history of Wi-Fi is, at that end of the day, consumers don’t really care. They simply want to be always connected. They want their data. They want it fast. And they want it secure.