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  • Writer's pictureDean Anthony Gratton

20 years of Wi-Fi: What did we ever do without it?

Updated: Oct 17, 2019

What happened? Did I blink too fast or has 20 years indeed passed since the first 802.11b standard was introduced in 1999?

Those difficult places to reach

Yep, I’ve just checked – my “salt and pepper” hairline is testimony to how 20 years have sped along without due care and attention and have surprisingly avoided a speeding ticket. 2019 stamps 20 years of Wi-Fi connectivity and I wonder what did we ever do without it?

Actually, I do remember what we did: We connected our computers and other peripheral equipment over a local area network (LAN) using Ethernet, forming the most essential of computer networks! You may recall that one of the primary reasons Wi-Fi was introduced was to simplify connectivity. More so, when Ethernet cabling proved too troublesome to deploy, Wi-Fi became a wonderful alternative to resolving connectivity in those typically challenging places to reach.

Disruptive topologies through technology convergence

As such, Wi-Fi is, in fact, a wireless local area network (WLAN) topology that still forms a LAN, but connectivity to this computer network can now be done so wirelessly. Today, most consumers “incorrectly” perceive Wi-Fi as the internet, which is an unavoidable association, since most consumers forgo the civilised chit-chat at a bar or restaurant and, instead, seek that all-important Wi-Fi connection vis-à-vis, the internet! Now let’s be brutally honest with ourselves and put your hands up if you’re guilty: Typically, the first question you’ll ask your server is, “Do you have Wi-Fi?”

Never mind – I’ve done it too! So, Wi-Fi is a technology that permits connection to the wide area network (WAN), that is the internet or any other network that may be connected to it. With pervasive technologies such as 4G and 5G, it’s become increasingly difficult to distinguish between one networking topology from another and what we experience today is largely “disruptive topologies through technology convergence.” The dilution of our topological area networks has been driven by our incessant need to be connected, irrespective of our location and the technology that powers it.

A range of competing technologies

Anyway, enough of the networking topology lesson; instead, I want to fondly recall my experience with Wi-Fi over the past 20 years. In fact, I even recall the ever-so senseless debate across the industry, something which appeared in numerous periodicals in the early days, where Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless technology, for example, were apparently competing for the same application space – you know, competing with similar use cases. But 20 years later the two technologies have their respective applications. 

Bluetooth was originally conceived to replace infrared and the need to control your equipment through line-of-sight, such as your TV or Hi-Fi unit. A time when you felt that pressing the button harder on your remote control will make it work before realising that pointing the remote control at the ceiling isn’t going to change the channel or increase the volume. And, there were also Bluetooth and near field communications (NFC) that were similarly suggested to be competing technologies, yet today these two technologies perfectly complement each other. 

A consumer-friendly numbering scheme

Twenty years ago the notion of wireless technology was very much in its infancy and numerous technologies emerged to provide the simplification of connecting devices without wires. As such, I remember how such technologies were all competing for the same application domain, but it was clear to me that Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC and Zigbee, for that matter, all provided their very own unique functionality and capabilities, each serving very different application spaces.

I also recall how Wi-Fi went through a series of letters to denote speed, range and capability, where the technology was called the “alphabet soup.” A series of letters would follow the base standard, namely 802.11 and would allude to function and capability; for example, we experienced the likes of 802.11a, 802.11g, 802.11n and more recently, 802.11ac. However, the Wi-Fi Alliance shifted its positioning towards a more “consumer-friendly” incremental numbering scheme to denote features and functionality. 

The next generation 

Nowadays, Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n), Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) and the all new certified Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) are labelled as a friendlier association with the technology, although in reality no-one ever reads the small print – it’s just a headline to denote the next best thing! 

Moreover, Edgar Figueroa, president and CEO, Wi-Fi Alliance says, “Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6™ is ushering in a new era of Wi-Fi, building on Wi-Fi’s core characteristics to provide better performance in every environment for users, greater network capacity for service providers to improve coverage for their customers, and new opportunities for advanced applications, Wi-Fi CERTIFIED 6™ will deliver improvements in connectivity, including in high-density locations and IoT environments.”

Until next time …

Wi-Fi 6 additionally provides advanced security protocols and uses the latest generation of Wi-Fi security, namely Wi-Fi Certified WPA3™. Other features include orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), multi-user multiple input multiple output (MU-MIMO); 160 MHz channels – increasing bandwidth, in turn, delivering greater performance with reduced latency; Target Wake Time (TWT) which significantly improves battery life in Wi-Fi devices, such as internet of things (IoT) devices; 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation mode (1024-QAM); Transmit beamforming, which provides higher data rates at a given range, in turn, offering greater network capacity. 

Building on its core strengths, Wi-Fi 6 essentially offers greater performance, enhanced security, ease of use, whilst providing long-term compatibility with existing legacy devices. Wi-Fi 6 focuses on overcoming congestion in environments where there is greater use, such as public areas or within the home. What’s more, multiple users still enjoy fast data throughput, irrespective of the number of devices that are connected to an access point or router. Ah, Wi-Fi, what did we ever do without you?

So, this is where your truly “Wi-Fi CERTIFIED™” Dr. G signs off.

Originally published in Technically Speaking.


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