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Memory Lane - Wi-Fi’s long road

Tue, 09/04/2012 - 10:45pm
Stewart Schley, media and technology writer

Revolutionary ideas can require lots of nurturing before they leave their mark.

Stewart SchleyIn the lore of the wireless broadband technology known as Wi-Fi, the recognized “father” of the category is Victor Hayes, a former NCR Corp. engineer from the Netherlands who first chaired the famous 802.11 Working Group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Hayes was the individual who labored through the tiresome work of coaxing a standard out of the competitive mosh wrought by more than 100 companies with competing interests around how wireless networking should come to be.

It was 1990 when Hayes was named chairman of the IEEE group, but it took seven years for participants to come up with their first standard: a 2 Mbps data rate operable over a short distance, using one of two selected spread-spectrum approaches for distributing radio signals over a wide range of frequencies.

Even then, the technology that would come to be known as “Wi-Fi” sputtered, despite what seemed to be an obvious and growing need to connect printers, computers and peripheral devices within homes that were increasingly tricked up with technology. Clocking in at more than 400 pages and subject to differing implementation interpretations, the standard by itself failed to engender a consistent deployment approach that would inspire consumer confidence.

Two developments would change that. The first was an initiative among prominent networking technologies companies – Cisco, Nokia and Lucent were among them – to harmonize the way 802.11 components would work together so that a scaled equipment market could develop. In two years, that group – dubbed the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) – succeeded in building sufficient agreement around interoperability to spawn the beginning of a retail marketplace in which equipment would become plentiful and affordable.

The second development flowed from WECA’s work. In 1999, when Apple began shipping iBook computers with built-in Wi-Fi ports from Lucent, it marked a cultural starting point for Wi-Fi as a prominent consumer technology. Magazine ads displaying a space-age centerpiece, Apple’s AirPlay device, gave Wi-Fi an appeal it had lacked.

FCC role
None of that would have happened, however, without a government kick-start that preceded the 802.11 Working Group by five years.

The instigating element was an unusual move by the Federal Communications Commission to make a trio of radio spectrum bands available for experimentation by the general public without the need for a license. In 1985, the Commission agreed to open up three so-called “garbage bands” (at 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz) that previously were allocated for household devices, including microwave ovens and radio-controlled toy cars.

The frequencies came with conditions: Using them would require the use of spread-spectrum techniques that distributed radio signals over multiple frequencies, and any devices that attached to the frequencies had to do so without interfering with other equipment.

Still. The very notion of opening up these slices of electromagnetic spectrum from the IMS band (industrial, science and medical) was uncharacteristic for an FCC that took the job of compartmentalizing and licensing radio spectrum extremely seriously. For that, there is one individual to credit. The FCC decision came after five years of prodding from Michael Marcus, an inventive engineer who theorized that in the hands of entrepreneurs, open spectrum could yield creative and productive benefits. Marcus received the IEEE’s Electrotechnology Transfer Award in 1994, recognizing “pioneering work in the conception, drafting and enactment of the federal regulations that legalized commercial-spread spectrum radio … thus spawning a multimillion-dollar, worldwide wireless industry.”

The collective work to develop Wi-Fi standards is now dovetailing with the cable industry’s pursuit of a significant Wi-Fi presence, as operators build up home network management businesses and deploy tens of thousands of public hotspots. A May roaming agreement among major cable companies is the latest example of the industry’s attempt to create a differentiated, superior user experience for cable customers who want their broadband on the go.

It’s also a testament to the role of persistence in advancing communications technology breakthroughs and related standards. Counting from 1980, when Marcus first proposed the idea of opening up the IMS frequencies, to Apple’s commercial introduction of its Airport Wi-Fi system, it took nearly 20 years for Wi-Fi to go from the kernel of an idea to a real-world influence. Technology standards may move faster now, but even so, the lesson of Wi-Fi is that revolutionary ideas can require lots of nurturing – and even perhaps a dose of help from the government – before they leave their mark.

Email: stewart@stewartschley.com

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