Wi-Fi Alliance® continues its #20yearsofwifi blog series with a guest post from Extreme Networks. This series celebrates the amazing success of Wi-Fi® over the last two decades. Throughout the series, we will be showcasing Wi-Fi leaders and companies that have helped drive Wi-Fi globally. Be sure to follow Wi-Fi Alliance on social media – Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn – to make sure you don’t miss one!
When you first started working with Wi-Fi, what was your vision for its future?
At the time, my expectations for Wi-Fi were relatively modest – I thought it would simplify IT operations. When I started in networking in the early Ethernet days (think Thicknet, twisted pair, etc), one of the biggest challenges was Moves, Adds, and Changes (MAC). Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs) simplified the MAC issue, but when Wi-Fi first appeared, it was an entirely new way to connect in areas where networking infrastructure was neither available nor cost-effective to deploy. It was a really important development for IT teams.
But clearly, I was selling Wi-Fi short! Wi-Fi didn’t just change IT operations – it became something so much bigger. Today, Wi-Fi provides constant connectivity at home and in enterprises, but it also powers Virtual Reality (VR) headsets and robotics in schools, infusion pumps and patient monitors in hospitals, and connected wrenches and conveyor belts in smart factories!
In the early days, what were the challenges around Wi-Fi adoption?
In the beginning, the biggest issues were the high cost of Wi-Fi services and generally low quality of performance. One of the earliest access points cost around $1,000 and offered only 802.11b speeds, which as you can imagine, had limited use cases. The ROI simply wasn’t there, and people didn’t fully realize the technology’s potential.
But when newer standards brought faster speeds and when Wi-Fi Alliance® introduced its Wi-Fi CERTIFIED™ program, the quality of Wi-Fi connectivity and devices rapidly advanced – quickly cementing its status as an essential tool for communication.
What has made Wi-Fi the success story it is today?
The reduced cost of Wi-Fi products over time democratized the technology and made it more accessible to more people. Additionally, the establishment of a Wi-Fi certification process was crucial, as it ensures the industry settles on a single technology. But one of the biggest moments that helped move Wi-Fi forward was the introduction of 802.11n. Although many look back and remember 802.11n – or Wi-Fi 4 – for offering 300Mbps or 450Mbps, the real value of 802.11n was its ability to offer 100Mbps of ‘useful’ throughput. This was a significant jump from the 54Mbps provided by 802.11a or 802.11g. 100Mbps put Wi-Fi on par with the standard wired Ethernet data rates. Combined with the mobility offered by Wi-Fi, use cases just exploded – it was genuinely a game-changer.
Part of what makes Wi-Fi such a dominant technology is that it continues to evolve! As much of a milestone as 802.11n was at the time, the newest standard – Wi-Fi 6 – has the potential to be a similar watershed moment for the industry. In 2019, we’re already seeing Wi-Fi 6 access points that are purpose-built for high density stadium environments, laying the groundwork for sports stadiums to provide digitally immersive applications that make fans feel like they’re literally on the field. Moving forward, we’re going to see the introduction of additional, cutting-edge human experiences, enabled by Wi-Fi 6 technology, and we’ll see this take place across industries.
What are some examples of Wi-Fi’s more understated role in society?
Wi-Fi enables almost 100% connectivity wherever you are. About 15 years ago, I was on a flight, emailing with a coworker who was also on a flight, and I remember thinking it was the most amazing thing. And now today, beyond just doing business, travelers are constantly using Wi-Fi on planes, trains, and buses for doing everything from tweeting to streaming entertainment services.
When a technology is as ubiquitous as Wi-Fi, it’s easy to take it for granted. But it’s almost impossible to overstate the role Wi-Fi plays in society. Imagine, for example, a college campus going a day without Wi-Fi. How would teachers access their lesson plans? How would students submit their online exams or do their research? How would the administration send out information to parents? Or imagine a hospital going 24 hours without Wi-Fi. It wouldn’t be merely an inconvenience – it could have life-or-death consequences.
What are some of the most innovative Wi-Fi use cases? Most useful? Most widely used?
Wi-Fi is the foundation for many technological use cases – including locationing to help find a lost child at a theme park to facial recognition services so schools can geofence a campus, density tracking so a stadium app can tell a visitor which restroom has the least people waiting, and presence that can tie into HVAC and lighting for energy conservation. Wi-Fi is used for critical purposes all the time.
But with the rise of autonomous networks, we’re starting to see forward-looking organizations leverage Wi-Fi to create truly leading-edge and innovative experiences. For example, McMinn County School System in rural Tennessee set up Wi-Fi connected greenhouses to prepare high school students for agriculture jobs of the future. In the Netherlands, the largest motocross festival in the world, Zwarte Cross, provides Wi-Fi connectivity to its 220,000 attendees to transform the event into an experience that’s truly mobile and shareable. And Bowen Center in Indiana depends on Wi-Fi to power its telemedicine program to deliver next-gen care to its patients – no matter where they are.
Why is it critical for Wi-Fi to have more unlicensed spectrum?
The number of Wi-Fi devices continues to explode, with 9 billion devices in use today and 4 billion added each year. At this current rate, we will likely exceed the available Wi-Fi spectrum capacity. As critical as Wi-Fi is in everyday interactions, we can’t let that happen.
There is a lot of hype around 5G, the most optimistic projection estimates 1.5 billion 5G devices over the next five years. Wi-Fi will continue to provide necessary unlicensed connectivity for the lion’s share of 5G connected devices for the foreseeable future and will therefore require more spectrum.
But don’t fret, there’s help on the way. Wi-Fi Alliance is heavily engaged with vendors and other organizations to gain access to the 6GHz spectrum to help alleviate the pressure. We are all advocating and pushing the FCC to open up the 6GHGz for Wi-Fi. On the positive side, it will happen, on the negative, we just don’t know when. Stay tuned ?.
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