WiFi Turns 25!
July 3, 2022
As we celebrate one of the biggest birthdays of the year this long weekend, it seems appropriate to also recognize another significant birthday. Happy Birthday WiFi!
It’s been a quarter-century since the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) introduced the 802.11 WiFi standard. Since 1997, wireless speeds have increased, and mobile internet has changed the world. WiFi standards function in the same way that roads do, in that they have certain rules and requirements for any two points to connect. As such, WiFi standards are there to establish a common system of communication so that different sets of devices can communicate. Without them, we’d constantly have issues with incompatible devices not working well together.
In the world before WiFi, internet access and local networking were mostly limited to wired connections. Any device connected to a network needed a cable attached to it — usually either a telephone or Ethernet cable. As some of you know, this dramatically limited the portability of network-connected machines that we enjoy today. For those who do remember, we didn’t know any better and were just excited to be able to access the internet. That all began to change when the IEEE introduced the first WiFi standard.
Obviously WiFi has been a huge enabler with smart home technology. Smart home devices would certainly not exist in their current state without it. And as I’ve advocated recently for the use of wired smart home wherever possible, limiting smart home to that would have prevented the industry from experiencing its explosive growth over the last few years. Other wireless protocols like Bluetooth, Zigbee and Z-Wave have also aided in the growth of smart home as well. I’ve covered all these options in a prior post ‘Wifi, Zigbee and Z-Wave — Which Is Best For Your Smart Home?’ They’re all good means to support your wireless smart home needs but they have their pros and cons.
The idea of wireless computer networking originated in the late 1960s, but it was not until the 1980s that the technology became feasible for commercial applications with mobile digital networks. But they were expensive and used mostly by public safety services.
Over the past 25 years, there have been at least eight different WiFi standards introduced. The basic “802.11” naming system remains, but the WiFi Alliance also began to simplify the names with terms such as “WiFi 4” in 2008. Here’s a brief look at them, showing the standard timeline.
- 1997–802.11 — This initial standard supported a maximum speed of 2Mbps and used the 2.4GHz spectrum.
- 1999–802.11b and 802.11a — These updates to the initial standard increased the maximum speed to 11 Mbps and was the first widely adopted WiFi standard among home users. Later that year, speed increased to 54Mbps in the 5Ghz band but wasn’t widely used in home networks due to the adoption of 802.11b instead.
- 2003–802.11g — This WiFi update allowed up to 54Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and became widely adopted in homes and businesses.
- 2008–802.11n — With this big update to 802.11, commonly called ‘WiFi 4,’ the maximum speed increased to a theoretical 600Mbps on either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz bands.
- 2014–802.11ac — The ‘WiFi 5’ update supported a range of speeds from 433 to 1100Mbps on the 5 GHz band.
- 2019/2020–802.11ax — ‘WiFi 6’ and ‘WiFi 6E’ yet increased speeds to 600 to 9608Mbps data rates on the 2.4, 5 or even 6GHz bands.
- TBD — 802.11be — ‘WiFi 7’ is right around the corner and promises 40Gbps data rate under ideal conditions.
Despite the 802.11 standard’s debut in 1997, it wasn’t until 1999 that the first 802.11 products became available on the market. The company that initially pushed WiFi into the mainstream the most was Apple by introducing their WiFi product, AirPort, for its iBook laptop in 1999. Their entrepreneurial and innovative approach with wireless at the core of their business plan has lead to their success today. And Apple as a major player in the smart home world.
I want to make a quick comment here regarding the ‘under ideal conditions’ statement above. Or maybe it’s a disclaimer. There are a LOT of factors that will adversely affect your WiFi throughput. All the speeds listed above are best case. As I’ve addressed in a recent post ‘Why Does My Home WiFi Stink?’ the factors that bottleneck your WiFi can range from fish tanks to home construction to your mobile device.
Once it started to catch on with technology vendors, WiFi took off pretty quickly. In 2003 when 802.11g was released, home WiFi routers from vendors such as Linksys became common. Today, 802.11n and 802.11ac are probably the most widely used standards, both operating in the 2.4GHz or 5GHz band and supporting speeds up to 600Mbps and 1.1Gbps, respectively. Smart home technology has grown up with WiFi and takes advantage of both bands. The majority uses 2.4GHz as it was first to the party and has the widest range. The slower speed isn’t a deal breaker as most smart home devices don’t require a constant WiFi connection. Their operation generally uses sporadic connections like reacting to a motion sensor or a command to turn on a light.
Today, WiFi technology is now built into almost every small device that connects to the internet and has allowed mobile devices and smart home technology to become practical. It’s allowed easy internet access all over public places but especially smart home devices with cloud dependencies. As smart home includes aspects of entertainment, WiFi has dramatically expanded options such as streaming audio and video. Surround sound solutions and smart TVS have taken full advantage of WiFi to take home entertainment to a whole new level. And WiFi has enabled an entire digital culture of multiplayer online gamers at home.
It’s tough to imagine what our world would be like today without WiFi. But it’s exciting to imagine where WiFi will take us in the years to come. And equally exciting to see where WiFi will go with smart home technology.
Probably more here about WiFi than you’ve ever known — or wanted to — per Debbie. I have to admit I MAY have ‘geeked out’ a little here but I really enjoy working with technology. And being able to incorporate it into my lifestyle with smart home technology is icing on the cake.
I’ve really enjoyed the comments over the past few weeks to my posts regarding wired and wireless smart home technologies. Interestingly I’ve found there are a number of my friends who are staunch home WiFi proponents and use it for all of their smart home and mobile needs. Even one who literally ran 10,000 feet of Cat5 years ago when they built their home. To each their own but I’d be taking advantage of all that wire.
Let Debbie and I know your thoughts on all this in the comments, DMs and emails. We really enjoy hearing from you. Thanks again to all those following Debbie and I through our home building journey. It’s great to hear your success stories and suggestions as we move through the process. And if you like the content I’m posting each week, don’t forget to ‘Like’ and ‘Follow.’ Until next week …
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