A Brief History of Wireless Fidelity and the Evolution of 802.11

A Brief History of Wireless Fidelity and the evolution of 802.11

By Patrick Nelson, Smart City’s Operations Manager at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center


Although WiFi may appear as a technological advancement founded in the twentieth century the concept of WiFi was developed over 140 years ago. In 1873, a gentleman named James Clerk Maxwell proved electromagnetic waves (EM) could move through the air with the mathematical electromagnetic wave equation formula. Although the concept was primitive at the time the EM formula paved the way to a series of innovative discoveries ranging from the microwave, plastic welding, helicon double layer ion thruster, to the every day wireless fidelity commonly known as WiFi.

Since the initial proposal of the EM formula many innovators and inventors built upon the concept over time but the technology did not progress into the consumer market until the mid 1980’s. In 1985 the US Federal Communications Commission first released the Industrial, Scientific and Medical radio (ISM) bands for unlicensed use. This opened the door for the wireless communication age to begin with AT&T and NCR Corporation as an early adopter by creating a wireless cashier system under the name WaveLAN for commercial use.

Wireless communication and networking innovations continued throughout the late 1980’s and 1990’s. In June of 1997 the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) created a breakthrough with the development of the 802.11 protocol. The protocol outlined the foundation of WiFi and supported a maximum network bandwidth of 2Mbps.
Since 1997, IEEE has continued to build upon the original 802.11 protocol to develop faster and farther reaching wireless service.

  • Sept. 1999 – 802.11a outlines transmission speed up to 54Mbps – but the technology was plagued with production issues and high costs.
  • Sept 1999 – 802.11b brought speeds up to 11Mbps, was relatively inexpensive and easy to produce compared to 802.11a, and took the markets by storm.
  • June 2003 – 802.11g brought the old 802.11b consumers up to 54Mbps speeds of its predecessors.
  • Oct 2009 – 802.11n redefined the use of the wireless radio frequency spectrum and increased speeds up to 135Mbps.
  • Dec 2012 – 802.11ad introduced incredible speeds up to up to 6.75 Gigabits per second but 802.11ad was not well suited for the consumer market and was poorly received.
  • Dec 2013 – 802.11ac continued to bring consumers closer to Gigabit speeds with 780Mbps.

Wireless communication and technology continues to expand and evolve, with the next 802.11 protocol expected to be released as early as March 2016. The new protocol will outline throughput speeds, setup times, useable range and more to meet the demands of mobile market. In other words, the next 802.11 protocol will provide faster high definition streaming, and increase data transfer capabilities and the potential for infrastructural upgrades.

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