#20yearsofwifi with Imagination Technologies
July 24, 2019 by Richard Edgar
Wi-Fi Alliance® continues its #20yearsofwifi blog series with a guest post from Imagination Technologies. 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 very beginning, I saw Wi-Fi as a direct replacement for the wired Ethernet that people used to connect to corporate networks and/or the internet. That was where most of the promotion – and frankly the business – was. I certainly did not envision the wide range of applications that we have today that are driving such a huge expansion in the use of Wi-Fi.
In the early days, what were the challenges around Wi-Fi adoption?
Back in the late 1990s, there wasn’t a huge demand for mobile wireless connectivity. Mobile phones were still very early in their development, text messaging was just taking off. Most people had a personal computer (PC) with a 56kbps dial-up modems – if they even connected to the internet (well, what the internet was then using CompuServe). The challenge was convincing people of the need for wireless connectivity, which got its first real foothold with the introduction of the Apple iMac with integrated Wi-Fi. That kick-started Wi-Fi into laptops, particularly for the enterprise markets.
Another interesting challenge in the early days was Bluetooth. Bluetooth had got a lot of press interest – and articles – in the early days and was much better known than Wi-Fi. I had many meetings where I tried to convince people that Wi-Fi was the better option – in the very early days Wi-Fi and Bluetooth had the same speeds and there were a number of companies promoting the latter as a method of connecting to the Internet or corporate networks and had “full function” Bluetooth Access Points. When IEEE 802.11b was released with the superfast headline 11Mbps speed, that challenge disappeared very quickly!
What has made Wi-Fi the success story it is today?
Over the years there have been a number of times where Wi-Fi has taken a step forward – for example when Apple integrated Wi-Fi into the iMac in the late 1990s. But the integration of Wi-Fi into the mobile phone has had by far the biggest impact on the development of Wi-Fi. Suddenly people had Wi-Fi to interact with the rest of the world on a device they always had with them. Over the years, having Wi-Fi on the phone has driven more and more different ways to use it, with more and more devices. Wi-Fi in the smartphone has taken it away from just being something to connect to the internet, to something to interact with the rest of the world.
Where will Wi-Fi be in three years? Five years? The next ten years?
There is a big challenge ahead for Wi-Fi in the coming years as 5G is rolled out around the world. There are many people in the cellular industry who see 5G becoming the dominant technology and driving other wireless and connectivity technologies into the sidelines. Even so, I see Wi-Fi remaining as an important technology for the future. With the integration of what I call the big three wireless technologies (cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth) into the mobile phone, Wi-Fi will remain an important way for people to interact with the outside world. I see much more information becoming available in close vicinity to people that will need to be collected into the handset for the user to interact with. Wi-Fi will remain an important way to get this information into the phone.
I also believe that Wi-Fi is now coming to a crossroads in its development. Since the early 1990s, the mantra on developing new Wi-Fi standards has been, faster, faster, faster. That was needed and very important as so many new applications appeared which use Wi-Fi – for example, video streaming. This is still important, and the Wi-Fi community needs to encourage this. To paraphrase Buzz Lightyear from the movie Toy Story “to 100Gbps and beyond!” But the industry also needs to support a different class of applications and use of Wi-Fi – which has been recognized with Wi-Fi 6, where support has been provided for low-data-rate (and typically low-power) applications. This does need to be encouraged as I strongly believe that there will be a huge growth in demand for low-power, low-data-rate applications that would love to use Wi-Fi and its ability to interact with people through the mobile phone.
Where will Wi-Fi have the biggest impact in the future and why is it critical for Wi-Fi to have more unlicensed spectrum?
When I first started working in Wi-Fi, the spectrum that was effectively used – 2.4GHz – was also used by several different technologies, but it was not that busy. I remember until the early 2000s being able to scan around my house and have the pleasure of being the only person using this band – there was nothing else there. Today – even though I live in an area of much lower housing density – the 2.4GHz spectrum around me has about 100 different wireless devices of various technologies that I can see. It has become difficult to have good performing Wi-Fi in 2.4GHz. I believe that this situation will get worse. More Wi-Fi operates in the 5GHz spectrum than ever before and you can see this spectrum is now starting to get busier. Five years ago, I was the only person near my house using 5GHz but unfortunately for the performance of my home Wi-Fi, I can now see several other devices around me that use it, just as I did all those years ago with 2.4GHz. Wi-Fi is a victim of its own success.
The only way that we can enable Wi-Fi and other wireless technologies to successfully interoperate is to ensure that we continue to develop new free-to-use spectrum around the world. If not, then as the use of wireless technologies grows, performance and user expectation will slowly degrade. We cannot let this happen. Wireless has developed new applications that have enabled many places to become connected to the rest of the world for the first time. This has had huge economic benefits to individuals – particularly in developing countries. For example, the ability of farmers in developing countries to use Wi-Fi to get information on the weather, the prices of crops, etc. has had a profound effect on them and their families, enabling them to become more solvent – with the subsequent increase in quality of life through better healthcare and education. I do not know how you value that. I do know that this is something to be proud of and something that must continue to make the whole world a better place.
Richard Edgar joined Imagination in 2011 as Director of Communications Technology, responsible for developing the strategy and roadmap for the company’s Ensigma communications IP portfolio. Mr. Edgar previously spent six years at CSR where he drove the development of the company’s Wi-Fi technology for its short-range wireless ICs and was responsible for the development of multiple advanced wireless technologies as part of the CTO’s office.
Before that, Mr Edgar managed 3Com’s enterprise wireless product portfolio, and prior to that was Product Manager for Wi-Fi chipsets at Lucent (later Agere Systems). He was part of the team at Buffalo Technologies that introduced Wi-Fi into Europe in 1998. He is a senior member of the IEEE and has held multiple leadership positions in the development of Wi-Fi Alliance Certification Programs. Mr Edgar holds a Bachelor of Engineering Degree from Coventry University, UK.