When searching the web, there is no distinct or formalized date of birth of wireless LAN to be found, let alone a place of birth. Some of us may get the feeling that this key communication technology of our age was invented just a couple of years ago.
There are still people and organizations that do not use Wi-Fi at all and, occasionally (although this is increasingly rare), I meet people who have never even heard of Wi-Fi. So how old is this wireless technology then? Where was it invented? How did it evolve, and why don’t we celebrate it as we should? As a technology enthusiast, I would like to encourage anybody reading this to take a minute and think about the past of Wi-Fi and its implications today, while I try to give this technology its well-earned place in history.
It all started 30 years ago—seriously, 30 years and a couple of months—when, on May 9, 1985 and after a number of attempts, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided to specify three unlicensed ‘Industry, Science and Medical’ (ISM) bands of the wireless spectrum for use by organizations in need of wireless communication and free of any license fees. At the same time this defined spectrum should become a shared medium for wireless communication.
It has to be noted here that the trail was blazed by several US and European organizations, including universities, governmental research institutes, but also numerous privately owned companies. One of the pioneers was the American NCR Corporation. Their retailer customers were looking for more flexibility when moving their counters and cashiers around their shops. Fortunately a small research team out of Nieuwegein in the Netherlands received the assignment to develop a technology for transferring data over short distances through the air. In the process of developing this technology the assignment was moved from NCR Corporation to the Bell Labs of Lucent Technologies, although it remained in the Netherlands.
Once the first hurdle of FCC approval had been taken, quickly the battle for widespread recognition ensued. From the very beginning there had been two parties, those believing in Frequency Hopping (FH) and those believing in DSSS (Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum). The industrial engineering organization IEEE made the final call by establishing a particular workgroup for the use of wireless data transmission, called 802.11 (link to PDF) and creating the first internationally adapted standard 802.11b (2.4GHz) in 1999. These five numbers in combination with letter(s) are still widely used as synonym for Wi-Fi (or correctly called wireless LAN) today.
One major event which gave this technology a huge push towards general acceptance can be attributed to a then medium-sized private computer company from Cupertino in California. Just before the end of last century and by the return of Steve Jobs to Apple as interim-CEO, the company picked-up on the Wi-Fi technology and designed the AirPort, the first commercial use of wireless LAN. This triggered almost every other laptop and consumer-electronics vendor to integrate Wi-Fi chipsets into their machines. At the same time companies like ELSA Technologies AG (part of which later became LANCOM Systems) joined the wireless movement using the same chipset.
Unfortunately, the original research institution in Nieuwegein had to be closed during the first rise of WLAN around 2004. Nevertheless, other developers took up the technology, and made it better, faster and more intelligent. More importantly however, the users finally accepted it and started to appreciate the gain in freedom from a wireless connection. The fast rising numbers of mobile devices enabled Wi-Fi to mature and become the wireless data transfer technology we know today.
With this first blog I would like to give Wi-Fi its official day in history, but also its place of birth. To prove the global origin of this technology I tried to show that the place of birth is not the same as where the FCC decision was made. The FCC may have created the date of birth on May 9, 1985 inside their board room. But this room is not the cradle for this technology, which belongs to the original, hard-working engineers in Nieuwegein and should be attributed to Europe. So belayed Happy Birthday and live on!
Given name: Wi-Fi (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, today: Wi-Fi Alliance)
Date of birth: May 9, 1985 (FCC boardroom – USA)
Place of birth: Nieuwegein, Holland (NCR research center – Europe)
Official name: IEEE 802.11 or wireless LAN / WLAN
Note: a couple of short-cuts have been taken to make this brief history more readable.
If you want to read more on the history of Wi-Fi just follow these links:
Edit: An attentive reader noticed a mistake in the text, so we changed the respective line accordingly.