Hedy Lamarr and The Evolution of Wi-Fi

There have been many technological innovations that improved the reach of networks over the past 20 years, with one of the most important being pretty much invisible – WiFi. Nearly all of us connect to WiFi networks daily, at work and in the home, using an advancement that brings many conveniences but is often viewed as a box on a desk or tucked away in a closet. While WiFi may have been adopted at the workplace and in the home around the turn of the century, its roots span as far back as World War II.

At the beginning of World War II Hedy Lamar, a Hollywood actress and inventor, and Georg Antheil developed a radio guidance system for torpedoes used by the Allied forces, utilizing frequency-hopping spectrum technology. The technology prevented Axis powers from jamming transmissions sent to torpedoes, keeping them on target. Although the US Navy didn’t adopt the technology until the 1960s, similar techniques were incorporated into Bluetooth and legacy versions of Wi-Fi.

Fast-forward a few decades to the 1970s – ALOHAnet and the ALOHA protocol were used to connect the Hawaiian Islands via a UHF wireless packet network. Both ALOHAnet and the ALOHA protocol are considered to be forerunners to the Ethernet and Wi-Fi protocols. Around the same time Vic Hayes, often regarded as the “Father of Wi-Fi”, worked with similar technologies at NCR establishing the IEEE 802.11 Standards Working Group.

Establishing Standards

During the early 1990s, NCR and AT&T invented the precursor to Wi-Fi, designed for use with point of sale systems. These early products were known as WaveLAN and ultimately led to the creation of Wi-Fi.

The first version of the 802.11 protocol was released in 1997. While slow when compared to today’s standards, the 2Mb/second transmission rate felt blazing-fast at the time and had more available bandwidth than the average business Internet connection.

By 1999, a new revision named 802.11b was released, improving transmission speeds to 11Mb/second. Around the same time, The Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance was founded, eventually becoming The WiFi Alliance and introducing the term “Wi-Fi” to the public.

Mainstream Adoption

Wi-Fi’s 802.11b revision paved the way for wireless networking in both businesses and homes during the early 2000s. The improved speeds and lowered hardware costs quickly led to its mainstream adoption as the definitive wireless LAN technology.

Over the next several years, additional revisions were released, further improving transmission speeds, security, and adding additional frequency bands to accommodate increased usage.

In 2004 WPA was introduced, phasing out the WEP security standard. WPA provides several benefits over WEP, including Message Integrity Checks designed to prevent attackers from intercepting, altering, and resending data packets. Five years later, a milestone was reached; the one billionth Wi-Fi device shipped.

Widespread Usage and Simplified Naming

By the beginning of the next decade, there were over one million Wi-Fi hotspots available, with the number surpassing five million by 2013. Publicly-available wireless networks were made available virtually everywhere, causing the term “hotspot” to become synonymous with coffee shops.

Revisions of the 802.11 protocol continued to be released, with each offering new transmission speed and security benefits. The naming system for Wi-Fi wasn’t terribly clear, especially for consumers, so The Wi-Fi Alliance created a new naming system beginning with Wi-Fi 4 and 5, leading to the latest revision known as Wi-Fi 6.

2019 marked a new milestone for Wi-Fi: the 50 billionth device shipped and included Wi-Fi, the latest generation of wireless networking technology.

Wi-Fi 6: The Next Generation of Wireless Networking

In September of 2019, The Wi-Fi Alliance released certification standards for new Wi-Fi 6 devices, signaling that the technology is ready for real-world use. Not only is the new standard backward-compatible, but it’s also already shipping in new devices including the iPhone 11. The latest revision of the 802.11 protocol boasts transmission speeds up to 40% faster than Wi-Fi 5 – even when using 2.4Ghz networks. While most modern wireless networks run on 5Ghz, 2.4Ghz is better at penetrating solid objects such as walls and many of the devices that caused interference in the past aren’t as widely used, freeing the frequency for wireless networking again.

Wi-Fi 6’s advancements can even extend the battery life for supported devices. A new feature, Target Wake Time, has the ability to turn a device’s wireless radio off to conserve power and signal it to turn on when it’s time to send or receive information.

The new revision’s most important improvement, particularly within the workplace, is its improved performance on networks with many wireless devices. New wireless access points are able to work together to provide devices with the best throughput possible and reduce network “dead spots” in the process. This improved connectivity doesn’t just benefit users, it creates many opportunities to leverage wireless networking for IoT devices, providing enhanced inventory and tracking capabilities.

Is Your Business Ready for Wi-Fi 6?

Are you eager to learn more about what Wi-Fi 6 can do for your business? Join us and the team at Meraki for a webinar as part of Valiant Technology’s Infrastructure Month! Looking to make the upgrade now? Reach out to our sales team to learn more about the benefits and how our IT Assessment process can help align your technology with your business and position it for growth.

Matt has spent the better part of 2 decades building systems, managing IT departments, and developing websites and applications for the education, publishing, and technical service industries. As an MCSE...

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