WiFi Through The Years: A Technical Internet Timeline
It might be hard for today’s current generation of young people to comprehend, but internet in the not-so-distant past was a luxury. But today, the need for more and more bandwidth grows every single day to simply live and function in society. Network performance is critical. It’s critical for consumers, for businesses, for everyone. Fast and reliable WiFi connection is an absolute necessity.
Fortunately, technology moves forward pretty fast these days. World events of the last few years have sped up many of these advancements. More people are working from home in 2022 than ever before, a development that gave internet and mobile operators/developers no choice but to keep up with the connectivity demand. And it’s not just bandwidth that’s an issue. Latency (the pause in connection as the network tries to keep up with traffic) is equally pressing. It effects lots of things, including IoT traffic, voice, gaming, video conferencing, and more.
Despite the seemingly never-ending need for more data speeds and more reliability, WiFi technology in 2022 is astounding in so many ways. Speeds and reliability are faster and more secure than ever. And with 5G networks growing every day, the sky is truly the limit. But it wasn’t always this way. Let’s take a summarized and technical look at the history and evolution of WiFi networks and see where it all started.
What is WiFi?
Perhaps you’ve never heard the real definition of WiFi. Here’s a great definition from 5GHub.us: “Wi-Fi is a short-range wireless access technology that converts signals from wired to wireless based on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) 802.11 series protocols.” WiFi technology has developed significantly to the point where it’s overtaken standard broadband (aka hardline) internet as the preferred way we all access the internet. It’s actually been many years since that development.
The IEEE mentioned above is in reference to an organization of sorts that comprises task groups, study groups, and standing committees of about 400-ish members from over 200 wireless companies. Throughout many years, this working group is essentially in charge of amending and revising the original WiFi standard as technology advances.
The term WiFi is actually short for “wireless fidelity,” but the thing is… there’s no such thing. A paragraph from Verizon’s website explains, “Ironically, it doesn’t stand for anything. Wi-Fi…is often thought to be short for Wireless Fidelity but there is no such thing. The term was created by a marketing firm because the wireless industry was looking for a user-friendly name to refer to some not so user-friendly technology known as IEEE 802.11. And the name stuck.” Interesting little fact.
In the early days of commercially available wireless technology - say, around 1999 - it was just one of those luxuries that was nice to have, but not readily available yet. And as you would assume, the connection quality back then was nothing compared to today. Average WiFi data speeds could only go up to around 11Mbps in 1999. Plus, mobile devices that could connect to the internet hadn’t come along yet, and hardly anyone had a laptop. So 11Mbps probably didn’t seem that slow to people back then. The technical names for the WiFi frequencies during this time were 802.11a and 802.11b
Less than 5 years later, consumers finally got their hands on internet-connected mobile devices as they were slowly introduced in the market. It was also around this time that personal laptop computers were becoming common for the average person. In 2003, the WiFi frequency standard had increased to 802.11g and delivered faster speeds than before, now around 54Mbps on the 2.4 GHz frequency band.
Then came the first Apple iPhone in 2007, an event that many consider the birth of the smartphone as we know it today. Two years later, in 2009, the common user experienced usable throughput of around 100 Mbps from a frequency standard that sat at 802.11n, supporting 2.4 and 5 GHz devices with 600 Mbps of theoretical data rates.
Moving forward to 2013, where many of these technologies were simplified and expanded even further. At a frequency rate of 802.11ac, data rates were climbing higher on a consistent basis. However, 5 GHz was the only frequency band that 802.11ac could operate in, despite theoretical data rates of close to 7 Gbps. The truth was between 400-600 Mbps is what people were experiencing in the real world. It also at this time and on this frequency that MU-MIMO (multi-user MIMO) was introduced.
The five frequencies mentioned above represent five WiFi generations of the past that all have something in common. To meet the growing bandwidth demand, these mobile technology advances revolved mainly around one idea: how do we increase the theoretical rate? This terms refers to the throughput in an environment with a high SNR (signal noise ratio). In hindsight, the issue with this approach is that it created a latency problem. As augmented reality, virtual reality, video conferencing, smart homes, and other new internet-related services gained popularity, WiFi networks starting getting congested.
The ever-increasing number of smart devices in the world added to that, as well. So, where development was concerned, it became clear that providing the public access to more stations was a better approach, rather than increasing the theoretical rate or boosting spectral efficiency. Though the latter two are still important, even today, a more efficient way of improving the technology became clear, as is usually the case.
Now, it's 2018. With an industry consensus that latency was the problem to be solved, eyes turned to the skyrocketing bandwidth need and the development of more efficient wireless networks to handle it. 802.11ax became the new standard. This was also the time when someone came to their senses and realized that a proper name was better than a sequential number. They called this iteration of internet technology WiFi 6. How access points can handle multiple devices efficiently was the focus of WiFi 6.
WIFI 6: What Is It?
Fast forward to 2022. WiFi 6 is still the standard, operating on a 802.11ax protocol. It’s an incredibly efficient internet foundation that has improved since 2018. It still provides critical capabilities required by next-gen enterprises.
Since the early days of WiFi tech, another organization called WiFi Alliance was formed to act as a certification program (among other things) to make sure everything meets industry standards. By everything, we mean devices that use WiFi 6. Devices that meet these requirements are labeled WiFi Certified 6. WiFi Alliance states that by maintaining a standard, all the key benefits of the technology are delivered to end users. Benefits such as optimal performance in remote (and congested) environments, better power efficiency, improved network capacity, and the highest data rates possible. Consider these benefits in the following three scenarios.
An increasing number of homes and apartment communities are becoming smart, meaning more and more devices used in the home are becoming part of the IoT. Personal devices, home products, kitchen appliances, you name it. Before we know it, we’ll be able to control pretty much everything in our house from our smartphones. In order for all of these devices to coexist efficiently, they have to receive the WiFi Certified 6 approval. This allows us to stream on-demand HD content and manage the home at the same time. Our home lives are becoming more immersive every year, it seems.
When you go to an event in a large stadium or arena, or attend a big outdoor concert, things usually get dicey when it comes to cellular reception and public WiFi. But when your device is WiFi Certified 6, you’ll get a better user experience overall compared to devices that aren’t. Your service will be more consistent and your spectral resource management will be more efficient.
WiFi Certified 6 in business means extended remote services (e.g. healthcare monitoring), better e-learning capability, enhanced telepresence, and increased automation in manufacturing environments. Some of these uses are emerging, but still well on their way. Many enterprises have mission-critical applications that need to function at an optimal level in perpetually high-congestion environments. WiFi Certified 6 helps make this possible.
For even more in-depth information on the benefits and capabilities of WiFi Certified 6, take a look at this resource. It explains orthogonal frequency division multiple access (OFDMA), multi-user multiple input / multiple outputs (MU-MIMO), beamforming, 1024 quadrature amplitude modulation mode (1024-QAM), and Target wake time (TWT).
Is WiFi 7 Coming?
Yes, it is.
The 7th generation of WiFi is in the works and will replace WiFi 6, eventually. It’s expected to produce speeds at least 3x faster than WiFi 6, supporting up to 30Gbps throughput. When it arrives, users everywhere will experience higher cost-efficiency, higher capacity density, better interference mitigations, and higher spectrum and power efficiency. In some online publications, it’s being referred to as WiFi Extremely High Throughput. We’ll see if that name sticks. But we know for sure that it will operate on a 802.11be protocol and will use multi-band/multi-channel aggregation, just like Wifi 6 does. From what we’ve seen, it appears that 2024 is the year we’ll likely see it implemented.
WiFi Through The Years: A Technical Internet Timeline - Conclusion
For some of us, it’s hard to remember our lives before the internet. It has become such an integral part of our everyday lives. We depend on it for so much. As WiFi technology continues to advance with time, who knows what new use cases it will bring with it. What new possibilities it will bring to the surface.