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

Stephen Lawson | Sept. 11, 2015
The IEEE 802.11 Working Group started standardizing wireless LANs in 1990.

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.


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