Think your meeting's important? 25 years ago, this one spawned Wi-Fi

The IEEE 802.11 Working Group started standardizing wireless LANs in 1990

If you're reading this story over Wi-Fi, thank a department store designer.

It was retail remodeling that spurred NCR, a venerable cash-register company, to find out how it could use newly opened frequencies to link registers and mainframes without wires. Its customers wanted to stop drilling new holes in their marble floors for cabling every time they changed a store layout.

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In 1985, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to leave large blocks of spectrum unlicensed and let vendors build any kind of network they wanted as long as they didn't keep anyone else from using the frequencies. NCR jumped at the chance to develop a wireless LAN, something that didn't exist at the time, according to Vic Hayes, a former engineer at the company who's been called the Father of Wi-Fi. 

Most important, for anyone today who wants to buy an inexpensive Wi-Fi router and connect almost any portable device to it, NCR decided from the beginning that its WLAN technology should become an industry standard. The group that would develop that standard, called IEEE 802.11, first met 25 years ago Thursday.

As it reaches that milestone, 802.11 is branching out into new areas like long-range, low-power networks, better performance in crowded places and more precise location sensing. 

NCR was drawn to open standards by years of frustration with IBM's control of computing through its mainframes, Hayes said. Like other vendors at the time, NCR constantly had to adapt its products to work with whatever IBM built. "We were tired of being a follower," he said. 

Out of that initial impulse grew one of the most successful examples of open standards in action. Wi-Fi, which got its name from the industry group that certifies 802.11 products for interoperability, has gone into more than 10 billion devices and is used in home and business networks and public hotspots around the world. Even many mobile operators with their own licensed frequencies rely on Wi-Fi to better serve subscribers.

NCR first tried to get the WLAN standardized as a wireless form of Token Bus, a local data network designed for manufacturing automation. Piggybacking on that group would be easier than getting approval for a whole new standard, Hayes said. But after a couple of years, it turned out that Token Bus couldn't be adapted to wireless. That's when the 802.11 Wireless LAN Working Group was born.

The new standard took almost seven years to complete.  

"In the beginning ... there was no research done on the characteristics of radio used indoors," Hayes said. Factors like signal reflections off walls and ceilings were new phenomena that hadn't existed for outdoor radios.

Meanwhile, the engineers in the group didn't even use the same words for various aspects of the technology, so they first had to agree on a common vocabulary. Then they needed to find out users' requirements for a wireless LAN.

There were two competing modulation schemes proposed, and at first both were included in the standard, with the result that two products might be called 802.11 but not be able to talk to each other. Eventually one of these, called spread spectrum, became the one all players adopted. 

The first standard, called simply 802.11, became official in June 1997. But it didn't become a mass-market hit, partly because it only delivered 1-2Mbps (bits per second). The big technical breakthrough came two years later with 802.11b, an amendment to the standard that brought the speed up to 11Mbps. That put its performance in the same class as many wired LANs of the time, which used 10Mbps Ethernet to desktops. 

But what really sparked the WLAN phenomenon was Apple's decision to include 802.11b in its MacBooks, Hayes said. That left just one hurdle to clear: Taking components that still sold for US$500 each and making them cost just $100, per Apple's demand.

Hayes, whose job had been merged into Lucent Technologies by that time, said only Lucent was willing to make the effort to drag down the cost. Executives there understood that $100 WLAN radios would expand the market from businesses into homes, a much bigger opportunity. Lucent started adapting its products to high-volume manufacturing. 

Once 802.11b caught on, the amendments just kept coming. Some increased throughput, while others tightened security or made networks easier to set up. Soon WLANs started using unlicensed spectrum in the 5GHz range in addition to the original, more crowded 2.4GHz band. The Wi-Fi Alliance was formed in 1999 and started promoting the various flavors of 802.11 under catchier names. 

The current standard, 802.11ac, has a theoretical speed of about 7Gbps with the maximum number of antennas and other options. But the working group has other advances brewing now. 

- 802.11ah will bring the standard to frequencies below 1GHz, offering lower throughput but a range up to 1 kilometer. It's one of several types of low-power, wide-area networks that will compete to connect battery-dependent Internet of Things components like sensors.

- 802.11ay will be the next generation of WLANs for the unlicensed 60GHz band. Those high frequencies deliver data fast over a short range. Top speed should reach 20Gbps. 

- 802.11ax is designed to address degraded performance in crowded settings like stadiums and universities. The goal is to make each user's network connection four times faster than it is now in those locations.

- 802.11az, which is just starting to be developed, will let WLANs pinpoint a user's location more precisely and reliably.

The way standard WLANs have evolved and proliferated since 1990 doesn't shock Hayes, who retired in 2003. This was what the developers had in mind, he said.

"We dreamed of it, of course. But we knew there was a long way to go."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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