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Tech History: Wi-Fi

5 min read

Today we can’t go one step without googling on our devices what’s the nearest fast-food restaurant or asking Siri for some fact-checking. When in doubt, we simply take it to the Internet wherever we are at that moment. While the expansion of wireless technology opens possibilities for us to be smarter and quicker, it’s easy to take it for granted. However, it wasn’t always so simple – most of us can still remember how only a decade ago accessing the web required a dial-up modem. And took ages. But the story of Wi-Fi has started much earlier than you might think.

Light or smoke signals, flags, and mirrors – these are just a few examples of first wireless and pre-industrial communication ways to transfer information before it was cool. People tried their best to enhance long-distance communication even before the telephone or telegraph were in the picture. It was Nikola Tesla who predicted that one day we’d be able to communicate across the world with a device that fits in a pocket. And he was right. The technology we’ve seen in the last few decades describes the most rapid progress in human communication history. In this Tech History blog series, we’re going to discuss the main milestones and tribute the facts that need to be remembered.

The invisible light

Although commonly credited to Guglielmo Marconi in the 1890s, the invention of radio communication as the first wireless technology of the industrial age was the merit of numerous talented people. It was Heinrich Rudolf Hertz who executed the first properly documented transmission of electromagnetic waves in the 1880s. And soon his work was followed by many other scientists, with Serbian-American inventor and futurist Nicola Tesla and Bengali Jagadish Chandra Bose among them. 

In the 1890s Bose performed a number of successful experiments in Kolkata and introduced microwaves demonstrating how they ignite gunpowder and ring a bell at a distance. He wrote about the invisible light that can “easily pass through brick walls, buildings. Accordingly, messages can be transmitted by means of it without the mediation of wires”. We can only imagine how impressive it was at that time. 

At the same time somewhere in the U.S. Tesla was behind the first known method for changing frequencies to avoid interference. With his impressive predictions about the future means of communication, Tesla was way ahead of his time. So in 1903, he patented a system where the transmitter and the receiver switch synchronously between two channels. Not too long from that event, the military authorities became interested in the new technology and during WWI the German army began using radios with changing frequencies to prevent the British from eavesdropping.

The beauty and brain of Hollywood

Immigrant, talented actress of more than 30 films, feminist, an inventor with a patent under her belt and way ahead of her time – Hedi Lamarr proved that it’s possible to handle it all. Together with avant-garde composer George Antheil, she was the one who took this technology further: often called “the most beautiful woman in the world” actually co-invented an early version of the frequency-hopping spread spectrum. 

Having some knowledge in the radio tech and the weapons industry, the duo experimented with torpedoes. Knowing that these weapons are highly vulnerable to the detection and sabotage of the radio signals, she thought of using multiple, shifting frequencies to make signal sabotage harder. Now, George had a lot of experience with the synchronization of musical instruments and this inspired them to develop a secret communication system for the remote control of torpedoes, based on a frequency hopping mechanism that switched between 88 frequencies. In 1942, they received a patent for this method.

The first “Hello”

Or to be more precise, it was “Aloha”. To start with, packet radio is a communication technology that sends data as packets. As the story tells, the very first wireless data packet transfer without a satellite or connected cables was completed at the University of Hawaii in 1971. Headed by engineer and computer scientist Professor Norman Abramson, the ALOHAnet team connected seven computers on four different islands using a new technology called Ultra High-Frequency radio waves (UHF). This scheme enabled them all to communicate through a central computer located on the island of Oahu. Soon ALOHAnet received interest from the US military and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) that at the time was developing ARPANET, today known as the predecessor of the internet.

At that time, the US telecommunication authorities, the FCC, had nearly all the control over the field. So it was quite unprecedented when in 1985 they chose to open up three frequency bands (also known as “the garbage bands”, of 900MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5.8 GHz) on the wireless spectrum for unlicensed use. This meant that any organization could communicate over them. Quite soon vendors (IBM, NCR, and AT&T) started developing their own wireless local networks and solutions that became a basis for Wi-Fi as we know  it today. 

Finally, the rise of Wi-Fi

Now, the actual shift happened in the late 1990s at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Vic Hayes , or so-called father of Wi-Fi,  introduced the IEEE 802.11 standard, the concept of an international standard for wireless networking. In 1999, his team updated the standard for Wi-Fi to 802.11b and forever changed the tech world extending it into the homes of everyday users. No need to say that the name wasn’t a catchy and customer-friendly one, so a branding firm proposed “Wi-Fi” based on “hi-fi”. The other suggestions that followed the winner were “Trapeze”, “Dragonfly” and “Hornet”.

In the very same year, six major vendors established a new industry alliance, called Wi-Fi Alliance, to improve cross-compatibility and ensure that Wi-Fi kept the same set of standards across the globe. Today hundreds of technology vendors are part of this alliance. Besides promoting wireless technology, it also certifies wireless products. 

Then the events followed like a good old domino game. In the same 1999, Apple introduced the iBook G3, the first iconic laptop (of ambitious shape and colors!) with integrated Wi-Fi adjusted for users. Other laptops with Wi-Fi integration soon followed, and the first mobile phones were introduced in 2004 with Nokia’s 9500 as one of the earliest models. Since the iBook, a huge amount of internet-connected gadgets has snowballed making the Wi-Fi the most common way of connecting.

The growing need for speed

In 2014, the 802.11 standard was updated to 802.11ac, which provided better wireless speed to help support enhancing Wi-Fi needs. Many thanks to Wi-Fi, that we no longer need all the cables or multiple ethernet cords to stay connected. This means that we can enjoy Netflix without installing a cable box. Wherever we want and whenever we want. What is more, every one of us has at least one device connecting to the internet: from doorbell cameras, garage doors, to our security systems. But when so many devices are fighting for wireless capacity, Wi-Fi can quickly become a bottleneck.

Today Wi-Fi technology can only connect to one device at a time, sending and receiving small packets of information from each before moving on to the next. For this, the IEEE 802.11ax, marketed as Wi-Fi 6 by Wi-Fi Alliance, was introduced as the next generation of Wi-Fi. It’ll still do the same thing just with many additional technologies speeding up connections in the process. 9.6 Gbps. That’s up from 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5. Impressive?

Yup, the need for speed is only growing and the future of Wi-Fi is the next step.