Wireless Revolution: The History of WiFi

Believe it or not, there was a time when if you wanted to get on the Internet your only option was to have a phone cable or Ethernet cable plugged directly into your computer or laptop. Today, you have the option of sitting in any room in your house cord-free, or even hopping down to your local coffee shop and surfing the Web with relative ease. This seemingly miraculous ability is possible thanks to wireless local area networks, or WLANs. Commonly dubbed Wi-Fi, this advancement allows high-speed data transfers across limited space. But where did it come from?


In 1985, the technology called 802.11 was made available for use due to a U.S. Federal Communication Commission ruling, which released the three bands of the radio spectrum now used for nearly all wireless communication: 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5 GHz. Shortly thereafter the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and the Wi-Fi Alliance (originally called WECA or the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance) were formed to help develop and regulate wireless technology worldwide.


When the IEEE was formed in 1990, they chose Vic Hayes, also popularly known as the "Father of Wi-Fi," as its chairman. For the next ten years, Hayes helped direct the development of new wireless protocols as well as market the technology worldwide. His leadership and progressive thinking allowed the Wi-Fi Alliance to spearhead the regulation and widespread use of wireless technology.

The first version of the wireless protocol's legacy is now obsolete and would be considered dreadfully slow by today’s standards. It had a maximum data transfer rate of 2 Mbps, or Megabits per second. Most applications created today would not be able to operate efficiently at those speeds.

In 1999, 802.11a and 802.11b were released, and for many years were the standard for Wi-Fi networks. They both operated in the 2.4 GHz range of the radio spectrum, but, unlike 802.11, they were able to transmit data at a much higher rate. The 802.11a protocol could support data transmission up to 54 Mbps, but was designed for much shorter ranges at a much higher cost to produce and maintain. On the other hand, 802.11b had a much lower cost and much longer range than its counterpart, but worked at a much slower speed, maxing out at 11 Mbps. Because both protocols operated in the unregulated 2.4 GHz bandwidth, they were susceptible to interference from other appliances that used the same frequency such as microwave ovens, cordless phones and wireless keyboards.


In 2003, 802.11g was introduced as the new standard. This new protocol was designed to combine the best of the previous transmission standards—operating at a maximum transfer rate of 54 Mbps while still allowing for the longer range and lower costs. Most devices that incorporate the (g) technology are fully backwards compatible, allowing the use of all three protocols in one device.

The adaptation of 802.11n, sometimes called Wireless-N, saw a huge leap forward in the technology. With the ability to transfer data up to 300 Mbps and the incorporation of multiple wireless signals and antennas (called MIMO technology), people could surf the web even faster and with more stability. The new protocol also allowed data to be transmitted on both the standard 2.4GHz frequency as well as the less populated 5GHz which led to a stronger signal and less interruption.

Present Day

The latest technology, 802.11ac, proved to be another huge leap forward. With the advancements in dual-band technology, data can now be transmitted across multiple signals and bandwidths allowing for maximum transmission rates of 1300 Mbps with extended ranges and nearly uninterrupted transmission.

Technology continues to advance at faster and faster rates, making the once amazing seem commonplace. However, it is always good to remember how those technologies started and the innovators that created them. The future of Wi-Fi is predicted to have the potential for even faster speeds and increased stability. Data speeds now make it possible to allow voice and video calls to be transmitted over wireless networks reliably, which can often lead to great savings in phone bills. Service providers like T-Mobile are poised to provide wireless coverage to anyone and everyone in the present and wherever the future takes us.

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