What’s Next After 25 Years of Wi-Fi? – IEEE Spectrum


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  1. Tomi Engdahl says:

    Wi-Fi @ 25: A Look Back
    Making cash registers ring

    Twenty-five years ago a couple dozen engineers gathered in a hotel meeting room to define a wireless technology with the obscure name IEEE 802.11. Today the resulting Wi-Fi is a data network that rivals cellular, found in notebooks, tablets, hotel rooms, corner cafés and even airplanes.

    It’s a story of people and their products that made the unlikely journey from crude prototypes to widespread popularity. After an unlikely start in Washington D.C., the story shifts to the Netherlands and ultimately Cupertino, California, and a meeting with Steve Jobs.

    It begins in May 1985 when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission released a ruling opening up spectrum in the so-called junk bands including a chunk around 2.4 GHz. Don Johnson, a corporate R&D manager for NCR Corp. in Dayton, Ohio, saw the ruling and had an idea for wireless retail point-of-sale terminals.

    The systems could differentiate NCR from its larger rival IBM in a core market for the company founded in 1884 as the National Cash Register Co. Johnson gave seed money to a small team of about 15 engineers at an NCR office in the Netherlands and asked them to build a prototype to test the idea.

    “Many of our customers were department stores who wanted to change their layout regularly without drilling holes in the floors, so if we could make the systems wireless, they would be more flexible,”

    If the wireless technology was based on an open standard it would be an even bigger coup

    Of two techniques approved by the FCC, Tuch’s team concluded the direct sequence spread spectrum approach would yield the highest data rates.

    With prototypes in the works, Hayes decided the best way to start a standards effort would be to work with an existing group. In July 1988, Hayes and Tuch went to an IEEE meeting working on a wireless extension to the token bus used in industrial automation, but the chairperson didn’t show up.

    “They told me if I wanted to do some work, I needed to take the chair, so that’s what I did,” Hayes said.

    Hayes again rose to the challenge and in September 1990 convened the first IEEE 802.11 meeting. Initially few saw it’s potential. “First, I went to the Ethernet group, but they were not interested in wireless extension,” he said.

    While the IEEE work rolled on, the team prepared its first pre-standard product, initially called Radio-LAN. Just before the launch at a networking event in Dallas in 1990, the company held an internal contest seeking a better name. Two employees and their spouses won dinner for suggesting the wining name, WaveLAN,

    “The .11 standard became 2 Mbits/second with a slower frequency-hopping option, but 10 Mbit was becoming the wired LAN standard and our Holy Grail,” Tuch said.

    NCR had its own 10-Mbit approach as did rivals. Then giant Intel launched the HomeRF initiative. Initially it targeted 1-2 Mbits/s, “but they were lobbying the FCC to change its rules on frequency hopping,” Tuch said.

    The .11b group was first to the finish line with an 11-Mbit standard. “That was the final nail in the coffin of HomeRF,” said Tuch.

    Then one day in early 1998, headquarters got a call from Steve Jobs. AT&T had acquired NCR and spun it out as part of Lucent Technologies. Jobs wanted a meeting on wireless LANs with Lucent’s chief executive Rich McGinn.

    What Jobs initially wanted was a volume deal for Lucent’s wireless LAN card at $50 so he could sell it at $99. The final deal, according to Links, was for the 11-Mbit card at cost plus 5% with joint negotiations among suppliers to lower costs.

    Lucent execs swallowed hard and agreed to the deal. What seemed like a mistake at the time, proved to be a door to mainstream success, said Links.

    Apple’s late 1999 launch of wireless LANs forced PC makers to follow suit.

    Wi-Fi now carries as much as 70% of all wireless data, said Dorothy Stanley, the second vice chair of today’s much expanded 802.11 group.

    Current efforts include a smorgasbord of projects such as:

    802.11ah, a 900 MHz version of Wi-Fi geared for the Internet of Things
    A smart-grid advisory group on wireless LANs for utilities
    802.11.ax, a follow on to today’s .11ac expected to support ultra-dense deployments, probably starting in 2019
    And .11ay, a follow on to the .11ad 60 GHz standard just starting to get market traction

    Tuch looks at the progress with humility.

    “In the beginning it was about the love of technology, wanting to do something different and having a child-like curiosity,” he said. “If we knew the hurdles when we started we would have been too overwhelmed to start, but because we were ignorant we thought we could start a standard and didn’t realize the chances of success were slim,” he said.


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