Wi-Fi Alliance® celebrates 35 years of unlicensed spectrum
May 11, 2020 by The Beacon
For many of us today, it would be difficult to imagine a day without Wi-Fi®. Without Wi-Fi, how would people work? How would children study? How would friends and families communicate?
Wi-Fi has become a vital utility for many around the world. But Wi-Fi’s ubiquity in modern life was not always guaranteed. In fact, the very existence of Wi-Fi has hinged on both technical advancements and political factors that have spanned decades.
This week marks one of those historic milestones. Thirty-five years ago, on 9 May 1985, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted Docket 81-413, the first document in the world to authorize spread spectrum for civil use. This cleared the way for many wireless communications technologies we take for granted today, including Wi-Fi.
A look back at spread spectrum technology
Spread spectrum uses wideband, noise-like signals that are hard to detect or intercept – and are also more difficult to interfere with than narrow-band signals. As a result of its low probability of intercept and anti-jamming features, the U.S. military began using spread spectrum for secure communication as early as World War II.
Exclusive use of spread spectrum technology was reserved for military use for nearly forty years. The same characteristics that made spread spectrum a boon for military communication also showed potential for civil and commercial use. Because spread spectrum signals are distributed over a wide range of frequencies, they are unlikely to interfere with other signals used by businesses and consumers, and as two academics argued in a 1990 IEEE Spectrum article “Such an advantage opens up crowded frequency spectra to vastly expanded use.”
As deregulation took hold of the U.S. Federal government in the late 1970s, the FCC chairperson at the time, Charles Ferris, also wanted to remove regulatory impediments that might prevent innovative new services and technologies. In such an environment, specific and preliminary commercial use of spread spectrum for navigation purposes began in the early 1980s. The FCC also commissioned a report to outline potential uses of spread spectrum for non-government use in 1980, and heard a presentation in 1981 that discussed the technology that would eventually become Wi-Fi.
All these events helped add momentum to the movement that was growing to open spread spectrum for civil use. The efforts of researchers within the FCC culminated in the adoption of Docket 81-413 on 9 May 1985. The date would go down in history as the first general authorization of spread spectrum for non-military use.
The impact today
That decision by the FCC 35 years ago fundamentally changed the way humans communicate, collaborate, and innovate. By authorizing spread spectrum for civil use, the FCC paved the way for Wi-Fi – a technology that has become an essential part of our daily lives and has had an even greater impact than could have been imagined decades ago. Wi-Fi has not only evolved as a critical connectivity technology but has grown into a booming industry. Wi-Fi Alliance® includes nearly 800 member companies – ranging from chipset vendors and mobile device manufacturers to automotive, healthcare, and IoT companies – all of which use Wi-Fi to satisfy different business needs.
In addition to enabling a thriving industry, Wi-Fi has also enabled new players to emerge that use Wi-Fi to establish entirely new and innovative business models. Wi-Fi has provided this connectivity foundation while providing strong economic contributions – it is forecast to contribute more than $3 trillion USD to the global economy in 2023.
Now more than ever, Wi-Fi has proven its utility. Wi-Fi has enabled healthcare professionals to provide high-quality care, even in less than ideal conditions. Wi-Fi has allowed employees and businesses to remain productive even when working remotely. Wi-Fi has empowered students to continue with their studies, even if they are unable to physically be in the classroom.
Thirty-five years ago, the cumulative efforts of researchers, inventors, bureaucrats, and politicians to improve wireless communications came to fruition and set us on the path to the Wi-Fi many of us take for granted today. In the decades that followed the FCC decision, the Wi-Fi industry has seen continuous innovation, with members of the Wi-Fi community seeking to improve ease-of-use, connectivity, and speed. Today, the future of Wi-Fi looks bright. Just a few weeks ago, the FCC made another momentous decision to open the 6 GHz band for unlicensed spectrum use – including Wi-Fi – thus providing ample bandwidth for Wi-Fi use to continue to add value to our daily lives far into the future.