Living Legend: Vic Hayes

802.11 wireless is stimulating innovation worldwide

Vic Hayes

Vic Hayes, sometimes called the "Father of Wi-Fi," hardly fits the conventional image of a "legend." Soft-spoken on the phone, self-effacing, he's less a technological visionary and more of a problem solver.

Read about the other living legends of networking

Hayes was the first chair of the IEEE 802.11 group, which in 1997 finalized the wireless standard for radios that would operate in the unlicensed spectrum opened up in 1985 by the Federal Communications Commission.

That ruling sparked the interest of his then-employer NCR, which realized that a wireless standard would let the company, and its retailer customers, create a radio link between NCR cash registers and back-end mainframes. The radio link would make connecting the systems physically simpler, and eliminate the need to fiddle with proprietary protocols.

Although he had a radio background, thanks to his Dutch Air Force training, and NCR experience with data communications protocols, Hayes at first hesitated to accept the chairmanship, until a colleague assured him, "Vic, you can do this."

"This" included a crash course in learning "Roberts Rules of Order."

"I had to get a feeling for that," Hayes says, from his office at Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, where, at 69, he is a senior research fellow on the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management. "I purchased the book and studied it, so I could lead the group. I very much liked it."

He's not even a big Wi-Fi user himself. He just added a Wi-Fi adapter to an older desktop computer in his home, to connect it to his broadband router. His two laptops also use Wi-Fi and the four devices constitute his home network. His only mobile device: a basic cell phone, without Wi-Fi. "And I use it only for emergencies," he says.

We caught up with Hayes at his university office, where in between international conferences and authoring (most recently co-authoring "The Innovation Journey of Wi-Fi: The Road To Global Success"), he's helping to launch a new research project that will analyze Wi-Fi deployments in rural areas and developing economies to identify the ingredients of successful wireless broadband projects.

Slideshow: 25 years of networking 

Do you have a sense of how important your technology is to the world?

Oh yeah. I'm so proud that it's there. The first time I saw how good it was, was in our own 802.11 meetings.

When we started working on the standard, we had to make paper copies of our work and then bring them back to distribute them to 120 or 150 members. We spent four to six hours just waiting for hard-copy documents.

In 1998, we started our own wireless network at the meetings, with one of the laptops being a server. One person put all the new documents on the server and within two minutes all 120 people had them.

The second time, I realized how good it was, was when I started to see the user innovations and initiatives in using Wi-Fi for long-range communications in rural areas. Creating networks to bring broadband to the people really makes me happy.

Did you ever have an a-ha! moment while developing this technology?

Our group's own use of it was one moment.

The FCC ruling [in 1985, opening up the ISM band to unlicensed use for what became Wi-Fi] allowed two modulation techniques: frequency hopping and direct sequence. For direct sequence, you need a lot of chip-based mathematics. We had that capability in NCR. Frequency hopping is much easier, but it's also less robust.

In the 802.11 group, [representatives of] small companies wanted to do frequency hopping; the bigger companies wanted to do direct sequence. The IEEE rules require 75% support for a proposal, but we were stuck at about 50-50.

The solution was to allow both. This was the way through. I just had to see that it was the only way to make progress.

You ended up with two options that were incompatible: that's not good. But in 1999, we had extensions to the standard, using direct sequence [and eventually a different modulation, orthogonal frequency division multiplexing] for a data rate five times higher. So frequency hopping was just not interesting anymore.

Did you think your technology would have the impact that it has?

The 1985 FCC ruling said people could use this spectrum without the need for [applying for] an end-user license. Before that, companies had to go to the FCC and petition. The goal of the new ruling was to stimulate innovation.

At NCR, we always had the problem that our retail customers changed their floor plan from time to time and the [NCR] cash registers had to move and be re-connected to the computers. All those marble floors! We saw that radio would solve this problem.

In the beginning of the '90s, we dreamed of having our chipset in each laptop. Then we were just dreaming. Now it's real.

But [Wi-Fi] had to move from the niche markets. In 1999, Apple brought it to the home [with Steve Jobs' famous MacWorld demo of the new iBook fitted with the AirPort wireless network based on the 802.11b standard released that same year].

And then our [formerly NCR] group, now part of Lucent Technologies, made a huge price breakthrough: We went from $300 for [a radio with] 2Mbps, to $100 for 11Mbps. That was a huge change. That was really about crossing the chasm.

What wireless technologies do you think will be important in the future?

One recently-approved 802.11 standard is about how to interoperate between .11 and other networks, especially mobile networks. You can have a smooth change from calling someone on your mobile phone network and then going to VoIP over Wi-Fi network, a much lower cost network.

The IEEE work on gigabit 802.11 is an amazing project. This is not about point-to-point raw data rate, but [about] throughput for the entire network. I couldn't have dreamed that in 1998.

Also I think Wi-Fi is coming to provide rural areas with broadband. Wi-Fi devices are low cost, and becoming more power efficient, so you can use solar or wind power to bring long-range communications to these areas, and make these deployments sustainable.

In Nepal, a teacher at a secondary school made a Wi-Fi network to make life easier for his students, so they wouldn't have to walk two hours or more every day to school. But now, it's used by their whole community: They now have Internet cafes for browsing. And they have implemented VoIP phones to call each other and connect to the national and international networks. And the local farmers now can see actual pricing information and sell their products for better prices on the Internet.

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Slideshow: 25 years of networking 

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