It’s been a quarter-century since the IEEE introduced the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard. Since then, speeds have increased, and wireless internet has changed the world. Here’s a look back.
Look Ma, No Wires!
In the world before Wi-Fi, internet access and local networking were mostly limited to wired connections. Any device connected to a network needed a cable attached to it—usually either a telephone or Ethernet cable—which dramatically limited the portability of network-connected machines. That began to change in June 1997 when the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) introduced the first Wi–Fi standard.
The idea of wireless computer networking originated in the late 1960s, but it was not until the 1980s that the technology became feasible for commercial applications with mobile digital networks such as CDPD and Mobitex. But they were expensive and used mostly by public safety services.
In 1997, an IEEE working group designed the 802.11 standard, which supported data rates up to 2 Mbps in the 2.4 GHz band. Since “IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence” was a mouthful, a brand-consulting firm called Interbrand developed the trademark “Wi-Fi.” Wi-Fi is ostensibly short for “Wireless Fidelity,” which is wordplay related to the “Hi-Fi” and “High Fidelity” terms once used with home stereo systems. Industry firms founded the non-profit Wi-Fi Alliance in 1999, which manages the Wi-Fi standard and trademark today.
A Look at Wi-Fi Standards Over the Years
Over the past 25 years, there have been at least eight different Wi-Fi standards introduced. The basic “802.11” naming system remains, but the Wi-Fi Alliance also began to simplify the names with terms such as “Wi-Fi 4” in 2008. Here’s a brief look at them, showing how the standard has changed over time.
- 802.11 (1997): This initial standard supported a maximum speed of 2 megabits per second (Mbps) and used the 2.4 GHz spectrum.
- 802.11b (1999): This update to the initial standard increased the maximum speed to 11 Mbps. It was the first widely adopted Wi-Fi standard among home users.
- 802.11a (1999): This supported up to 54 Mbps in the 5Ghz band, but wasn’t widely used in home networks due to the adoption of 802.11b instead.
- 802.11g (2003): The famous “G” update to Wi-Fi allowed up to 54 MBps on the 2.4 GHz band and became widely adopted in homes and businesses.
- 802.11n (2008): In a big boost, the “N” update to 802.11 (commonly called “Wi-Fi 4”) increased the maximum speed to a theoretical 600 Mbps on either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz radio bands.
- 802.11ac (2014): Never content to sit still, the “Wi-Fi 5” update supported a range of speeds from 433 to 1100 Mbps on the 5 GHz band.
- 802.11ax (2019, 2020): Wi-Fi 6 and Wi-Fi 6E upped the ante with 600 to 9608 Mbps data rates on the 2.4, 5, or even 6 GHz bands.
- 802.11be (TBA): Wi-Fi 7 is just around the corner, and it promises a mind-boggling 40 gigabit/second data rate under ideal conditions.
From Concept to Mainstream
Despite the 802.11 standard’s debut in 1997, it wasn’t until 1999 that the first 802.11 products became available on the market. The company that arguably pushed Wi-Fi into the mainstream the most—at least initially—was Apple, which introduced a Wi-Fi product called AirPort for its iBook laptop in 1999.
Wi-Fi took off pretty quickly. In 2003, the Wi-Fi Alliance released 802.11g, which increased the maximum data rate to 54 Mbps, and home Wi-Fi routers from vendors such as Linksys became common. Today, 802.11n and 802.11ac are probably the most widely used standards, both of which operate in the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz band and support data rates of up to 600 Mbps and 1.1 Gbps, respectively.
Today, Wi-Fi technology is now built into almost every small device that connects to the internet and has allowed pocket internet devices such as smartphones to become practical. It’s allowed easy internet access in public places such as coffee shops, hotels, airplanes, and libraries. It has dramatically expanded access to the internet and allowed new entertainment options such as streaming audio and video. It’s also vastly enabled multiplayer online gaming at home.
It’s tough to imagine what our world would be like today without Wi-Fi, and it will likely still be with us for decades to come. Happy birthday, Wi-Fi!
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