You can’t see it, touch it or hear it – yet Wi-Fi®
has had a tremendous impact on the modern world – and will continue to
do so. From our home wireless networks, to offices and public spaces, the
ubiquity of high speed connectivity without reliance on cables has radically
changed the way computing happens. It would not be much of an exaggeration to
say that because of ready access to Wi-Fi, we are consequently able to lead
better lives – using our laptops, tablets and portable electronics
goods in a far more straightforward, simplistic manner with a high degree of
mobility, no longer having to worry about a complex tangle of wires tying us
Though it may be hard to believe, it is now two decades since the original
802.11 standard was ratified by the IEEE®. This first in a
series of blogs will look at the history of Wi-Fi to see how it has overcome
numerous technical challenges and evolved into the ultra-fast, highly
convenient wireless standard that we know today. We will then go on to discuss
what it may look like tomorrow.
While we now think of 802.11 wireless technology as predominantly connecting
our personal computing devices and smartphones to the Internet, it was in fact
initially invented as a means to connect up humble cash registers. In the late
1980s, NCR Corporation, a maker of retail hardware and point-of-sale (PoS)
computer systems, had a big problem. Its customers – department stores
and supermarkets – didn’t want to dig up their floors each time
they changed their store layout.
A recent ruling made by the FCC, which opened up certain frequency bands as
free to use and inspired what would be a game-changing idea. By using wireless
connections in the unlicensed spectrum (rather than conventional wireline
connections), electronic cash registers and PoS systems could be easily moved
around a store without the retailer having to perform major renovation work.
Soon after this, NCR allocated the project to an engineering team out of its
Netherlands office. They were set the challenge of creating a wireless
communication protocol. These engineers succeeded in developing
‘WaveLAN’, which would be recognized as the precursor to Wi-Fi.
Rather than preserving this as a purely proprietary protocol, NCR could see
that by establishing it as a standard, the company would be able to position
itself as a leader in the wireless connectivity market as it emerged. By 1990,
the IEEE 802.11 working group had been formed, based on wireless communication
in unlicensed spectra.
Using what were at the time innovative spread spectrum techniques to reduce
interference and improve signal integrity in noisy environments, the original
incarnation of Wi-Fi was finally formally standardized in 1997. It operated
with a throughput of just 2 Mbits/s, but it set the foundations of what was to
Though the 802.11 wireless standard was released in 1997, it didn’t
take off immediately. Slow speeds and expensive hardware hampered its mass
market appeal for quite a while – but things were destined to change.
10 Mbit/s Ethernet was the networking standard of the day. The IEEE 802.11
working group knew that if they could equal that, they would have a worthy
wireless competitor. In 1999, they succeeded, creating 802.11b. This used the
same 2.4 GHz ISM frequency band as the original 802.11 wireless standard, but
it raised the throughput supported considerably, reaching 11 Mbits/s. Wireless
Ethernet was finally a reality.
Soon after 802.11b was established, the IEEE working group also released
802.11a, an even faster standard. Rather than using the increasingly crowded
2.4 GHz band, it ran on the 5 GHz band and offered speeds up to a lofty 54
Because it occupied the 5 GHz frequency band, away from the popular (and thus
congested) 2.4 GHz band, it had better performance in noisy environments;
however, the higher carrier frequency also meant it had reduced range compared
to 2.4 GHz wireless connectivity. Thanks to cheaper equipment and better
nominal ranges, 802.11b proved to be the most popular wireless standard by
far. But, while it was more cost effective than 802.11a, 802.11b still
wasn’t at a low enough price bracket for the average consumer. Routers
and network adapters would still cost hundreds of dollars.
That all changed following a phone call from Steve Jobs. Apple was launching a
new line of computers at that time and wanted to make wireless networking
functionality part of it. The terms set were tough – Apple expected to
have the cards at a $99 price point, but of course the volumes involved could
potentially be huge. Lucent Technologies, which had acquired NCR by this
While it was a difficult pill to swallow initially, the Apple deal finally put
Wi-Fi in the hands of consumers and pushed it into the mainstream. PC makers
saw Apple computers beating them to the punch and wanted wireless networking
as well. Soon, key PC hardware makers including Dell, Toshiba, HP and IBM were
all offering Wi-Fi.
Microsoft also got on the Wi-Fi bandwagon with Windows XP. Working with
engineers from Lucent, Microsoft made Wi-Fi connectivity native to the
operating system. Users could get wirelessly connected without having to
install third party drivers or software. With the release of Windows XP, Wi-Fi
was now natively supported on millions of computers worldwide – it had
officially made it into the ‘big time’.
Part 2: Wi-Fi on the run for speed improvements
Part 3: The future of Wi-Fi
NXP’s Wi-Fi portfolio