Living in a Wi-Fi world: how it came to be

Paul Hellings, Director WiFi and Small Cells at Arqiva, looks at the evolution of Wi-Fi and offers some thoughts on how it might develop in the future

Living in a Wi-Fi world: how it came to be

Whether you’re using it on the move to connect your mobile devices so you can catch up with friends and family, satisfy your urge to watch comedy cat videos, or follow the glittering lives of your favourite celebrities, Wi-Fi is a technology that has become intrinsically linked to our daily lives.

So much so, that both home and abroad we expect Wi-Fi wherever we go. We expect it to be fast and we expect it to be free. That’s a lot of expectations!

Rewind a decade and there was no such thing as a tablet or smartphone. And in the early 2000s we were still predominantly dependent on wired connections and dial-up. In spite of this, although I should be appreciative that I no longer have to clog the phone to get online, I still take Wi-Fi for granted.

So how in a matter of years has Wi-Fi technology developed to transform not only the way we do things, but the way we think and behave?

1970-2012: Humble beginnings
While work on wireless technology first began in the early 1970s, the 802.11 standard that governs the technology’s development wasn’t created until 1997. This has evolved over the years with each version adding letters after the 802.11.

In its first iteration, products using the 2.4GHz band, which is free for anyone to use, had a maximum data rate of up to 2Mbps and it was therefore not widely adopted. Its successor 802.11a was faster but was only really used in the USA.

Two years later, in 1999, 802.11b was released and this is when wide-spread adoption really began. The technology was cheap enough to build into laptops and home routers, and it was easy enough for the average user to setup.

However, it introduced the first ‘up to’ debate. 802.11b allowed connection speeds of ‘up to’ 11Mbps at a time when dial up was still the major method of connecting to the internet. Your Windows laptop would merrily announce ‘Connected at 11Mbps’ but your phone line could only run at 56kbps…nearly 200 times slower. This confused a lot of people and to a certain extent continues ‘up to’ today, if you’ll pardon the pun!

Versions 802.11c/d/e and f never really saw the light of day and it wasn’t until 802.11g, which was launched in 2003, that we got the next significant upgrade. This variant lifted maximum speeds to 54Mbps and with home broadband having launched in 2000 the scene was set. An explosion saw broadband reach 13 million homes by 2006.

2003 also saw the UK launch 3G, with varying success. Uptake was incredibly slow at first due to the expense of 3G mobile phones. Moreover, 3G could not compete with the data rate of WLAN, which initially reached 384kbps. 3G and its successor 4G can today deliver speeds of ‘up to’ 300Mbps.

The next major update to 802.11 was the ‘n’ variant in 2009. This was significant both for its technology advances and timing. From a technology perspective it introduced Multiple In Multiple Out (MIMO); this allowed a compatible device to have a higher speed connection ‘directed’ to that device and achieve much higher speeds of ‘up to’ 150Mbps. Plus, home routers started to be measured by the number of antennas they contained.

Timing wise, it was only two years earlier that the iPhone had launched and transformed the mobile device, which not only revolutionised the consumer’s experience, but their expectations as well. Fibre and cable ultra-fast home broadband had also launched and was catching up with wireless speeds.

2015: Where are we now?
The current generation, 802.11ac, takes the MIMO concept a step further by applying it to multiple users simultaneously as well as lifting ‘up to’ speeds to over 1Gbps.

All of this has fuelled an expectation of being able to connect everywhere, and to have the technology in place that can operate at such a speed that it is capable of streaming high quality video to multiple devices simultaneously.

For people operating Wi-Fi networks this presents two challenges – maintaining that experience in a fair way to all users, and controlling their costs. Bandwidth controls are now common in the Public Wi-Fi space.

Even though you may connect using 802.11ac and the premise has ultrafast fibre-based connection to the network, the operator may well limit your speed to ensure everyone gets a fair share.

802.11 technology continues to evolve, and rapidly. Already we have seen devices that support Wi-Fi ‘Wave 2’; these have wider channels, which when combined lift the overall speed capability beyond the current fastest broadband connections.

The current Wi-Fi technology also enables more dense usage, which is essential in the modern home where TVs, radio, games and heating controls (to name but a few) now all require Wi-Fi connections. The connected home is starting to become reality.

Recently 802.11ad has been standardised but it will have little impact outside of specialist use. For example, it enables 802.11 standards on microwave spectrum and delivers a throughput of around 6Gbps, but it’s not really relevant for home use as the equipment is highly specialised.

2016 and beyond: What does the future hold for Wi-Fi?
I look back now and wonder how I survived with a “kpbs” dial up connection, but it’s possible that in 20 or so years we’ll mock the capabilities of 11ac products in the same way. After all, our need for WiFi is only going to grow thanks to the rising number of connected devices we all own.

If Gartner’s estimates are right, there’ll be 25 billion connected ‘things’ in use by 2020, and keeping all these devices online will require a serious amount of bandwidth. This is exactly why we need to keep improving wireless technology.

In less than 20 years, Wi-Fi has progressed leaps and bounds, so it’s exciting to predict what the next 20 years may hold – perhaps we’ll see infinitely increasing bandwidth, an end to sluggish speeds, or even the disappearance of the dreaded words ‘Not Connected’.

Wi-Fi has an innovative roadmap ahead. In the development stage is 802.11ay, the successor to 802.11ac. It promises more bandwidth and capacity, and it can be integrated with Mobile networks under standards such as LTE-LWA ,which will truly give us a consistent, connected, high-speed experience wherever Wi-Fi and/or 4G is available.

I already expect Wi-Fi everywhere, which has led to my bitter disappointment many a time. With the rise of the Internet of Things, though, I suspect it won’t be long until I really am able to connect to a Wi-Fi network no matter where I am, and with every single device, object or even garment that I own.

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