As a society, we’ve gotten so used to using the Internet and WiFi, that we don’t think much about when and how it all started. Most people don’t realize that wireless networks were invented long before the Internet exploded in the late 90s.
Believe it or not, initial attempts at a wireless connection started about 50 years ago on the island of Hawaii. The network’s name was ALOHAnet, and it connected the local islands through an ultrahigh frequency (UHF) wireless network.
UHF and Ethernet are the beginning of the modern Internet era that started what we use today. It’s hard to believe that there was a point in time in which the Internet wasn’t at the tip of our fingers.
Nevertheless, WiFi has an interesting story to share, and it starts with someone named Vic Hayes.
In modern times, we know Vic Hayes as “the father of WiFi.” Born in the Dutch East Indies, Hayes was an electrical engineering student with an interest in technologies that could help expand access to the population. He joined NCR Corp. in 1974, and with his knowledge, Hayes established the IEEE 802.11 Standards Working Group for Wireless Local Area Networks⸺a version of what we use today for wireless connections.
WiFi started with frequency bands that were the same that were used for microwave ovens. In 1985, roughly ten years after Hayes joined NCR, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled that it would be okay to release the ISM Band for unlicensed use, which is a frequency in the 2.4GHz band⸺think of garage door openers and old cordless phones. It was progress in the right direction, but not yet what we needed in order to be completely wireless.
In 1991, NCR Corp. along with AT&T Corp., invented the predecessor to 802.11 which was a wireless product under the name of WaveLAN that was used in cashier systems. Even though Vic Hayes is the “Father of WiFi,” it’s actually WaveLAN who came up with the technology that gave birth to the WiFi movement.
In the mid-90s, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), came up with a patent used in WiFi as part of a research project that they considered a “failed experiment to detect exploding mini black holes the size of an atomic particle,” said the founder John O’Sullivan and his colleagues.
It was around this time that CSIRO created the earliest version of 802.11 protocol and released it to the public. This type of connection brought along up to 2Mbit/s link speeds, which in today’s world would mean that you would probably be okay to stream audio (choppy) but definitely no video streaming or anything requiring a fast speed.
The year of 1999 brought us a higher speed with 802.11b, which allowed an 11Mbit/s that became popular around this time. It was more efficient, faster, and it enabled users to do a lot more with their connection than they previously had. That’s why the late 90s boomed with Internet-related technologies because it was the first time that wireless connections were so accessible to the public.
And in case you are wondering what the term “WiFi” stands for… well, it turns out that it doesn’t stand for much of anything. Though some people believe it to be an acronym for “Wireless Fidelity,” founding members of the network have dispelled the rumors for years. Basically, the network needed a simpler name instead of having to call it “IEEE 802.11b” all the time. “WiFi” was something that founding members of the WiFi Alliance came up with as a nickname.
Besides the obvious benefits that have come with modern WiFi connections, there have been many advantages that have stemmed from being able to connect wirelessly and have the capabilities that we have today as an online society.
In the modern world, we are completely mobile and on the go. We can connect virtually from almost anywhere on the planet. We have cellphones now that allow us to be connected to the Internet at all times.
WiFi is a technology that will continue to evolve and continue to progress as we move through time. When WiFi was first invented, the founders were only thinking of being able to provide general coverage for users; to stay connected during a storm or be able to call someone during an emergency. Yet, the abilities of a WiFi connection have completely surpassed those of the people that first thought about coming up with a technology that was completely wireless. Today, a reliable, fast, and secure WiFi connection is everything. And it will continue to be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future.