The History of WiFi & Just What Exactly is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is a term that most of us hear almost every day and is a service most would consider an integral part of our lives. From our smartphones to our game consoles and computers, most devices on the market today are equipped to use Wi-Fi. While WiFi has become critical to routines of many, a large portion of us don’t know anything more than the basics. Let’s explore the ins and outs of Wi-Fi and it’s history.
What is Wi-Fi? How does it work?
For most people, Wi-Fi is synonymous with an internet connection, however this is far from the truth. Wi-Fi is actually a wireless standard for connecting to a router from your device.
A router is a device that creates an internal home or office wireless network, and acts as the hub of this network. When you type in a website address from your phone or computer, it sends the address to the router. The router requests this page from the modem. The modem then connects to your ISP and sends the address to a DNS server.
A DNS (Domain Name System) server acts as a phone book, getting the numerical IP (Internet Protocol) address for the website address you typed. It then sends the IP to your computer, which saves it for later use and then requests the page from the ISP using the new address. When the ISP (Internet Service Provider) delivers the page, the modem sends it to the router. The router then sends it to your device.
How was Wi-Fi invented?
Wi-Fi was born in 1985 after the United States FCC opened up the wireless frequencies 900Mhz, 2.4Ghz, and 5.8Ghz to be used without a license. These radio bands were used by household appliances such as microwaves, and were assumed to have no practical application in communications due to interference from the aforementioned appliances. To make these frequencies useable for communication, the FCC mandated usage of spread spectrum technology over these bands.
Spread spectrum technology, (patented in 1941 by composer George Antheil and actor Hedy Lamarr for use in guiding naval torpedoes) is a technology in which a signal is spread over multiple frequencies in order to reduce interference. Spread spectrum improved wireless signals on these bands, however it did not resolve all interference, meaning that devices such as baby monitors or the radio in your phone still affected signal quality.
Around this time, WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) technology emerged, but the technology was proprietary, so wireless devices from one manufacturer wouldn’t work with technology from another. However, in 1988, the NCR Corporation wanted a WLAN standard for use in their wireless cash registers, and turned to Victor Hayes, author of many of their data transfer standards. Hayes, along with Bruce Tuch, a Bell Labs engineer, asked the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) for assistance in utilizing these frequencies for a WLAN standard. A committee was created with the incredibly catchy title “802.11” to develop this standard. Nine years later, in 1997 the standard was published and was named after the committee.
The 802.11 standard was capable of transmitting data at a speed of only two megabits per second but was quickly enhanced. In 1999, a faster version called 802.11a was released, with a speed of fifty-four megabits per second, but with limited range and high production cost. Later in the year, 802.11b was released, which brought Wi-Fi into the mainstream with its cheap production cost and greater range.
The sudden popularity of wireless networking created a flood of new 802.11b hardware on the market. However, there was no way to ensure compatibility between devices from different manufacturers. In 1999, a group of six companies banded together to create the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, or WECA, an organization that aimed to test Wi-Fi equipment for compatibility. In 2002, they coined the term Wi-Fi, a portmanteau of Wireless and Hi-Fi, a term used in the music industry as an abbreviation of High Fidelity, and renamed themselves Wi-Fi Alliance. Over the years, notably due to Apple’s inclusion of it into their products, Wi-Fi gradually became a widespread technology.
I keep hearing about Wireless AC and Wireless N. What are they?
Recently, two variants of Wi-Fi have been released, dubbed Wireless N and Wireless AC. Wireless N, operating on the bands 2.4 Ghz and 5. Ghz, was released in 2009 and was an innovative standard due to the fact that it utilizes a technology called MIMO, or Multiple Input Multiple Output. A good way to visualize this is to imagine a highway. In order to increase the amount of cars able to go through at a time, you would add more lanes, or in the case of the router, more antennas. This brings the speed up to a maximum of 600 Mbps.
The newest Wi-Fi standard is Wireless AC, operating on the 5Ghz band, was released in 2014. Not to be confused with alternating current, Wireless AC is the 3rd revision of the previously mentioned 802.11a standard. It also uses MIMO, and the maximum amount of antennas goes from 4 to 8 in order to utilize multi-user MIMO.
With multi-user MIMO, up to four separate computers can receive and send data to the router simultaneously. The minimum speed is of 500 Mbps over a single link, and a multi-station connection can offer a massive 1 Gbit. For scale, it would take only 32 seconds to download a 2 hour movie in 1080p HD!
Check out the the differences between Wireless-G, Wireless-N, & Wireless-AC blog post for more info on the different WiFi/802.11 protocols.
What are the Best 802.11 Wireless Routers Throughout the Years?
We thought it might be useful to list out some of the most popular 802.11 wireless routers and how they compare on a wireless scale throughout the years. You can also see the evolution of WiFi routers through the years in the above chart.
Single Band Wireless-G (802.11g)
Wireless-G 54 Mbps: Linksys WRT54G
Single Band Wireless-N (802.11n)
Dual Band Wireless-N (802.11n)
Wireless-N750 – Netgear WNDR4000 DD-WRT, Linksys E4200 V1 DD-WRT
Dual Band Wireless-AC (802.11ac)
Wireless-AC1450 – Netgear AC1450 DD-WRT
Wireless-AC2400 – Asus RT-AC87U DD-WRT
NEW! Wireless-AC3100 – Asus RT-AC88U DD-WRT – Top Wired Router, 8 Gigabit Ports
Tri Band Wireless-AC (802.11ac)
Does WiFi Open My Network to hackers?
As revolutionary as Wi-Fi is, it is not without its faults. In this day and age, it’s incredibly easy to spy on your internet connection. Hackers can utilize many tools to steal your personal information such as credit cards, email and social network passwords, and much more. In fact, in a study conducted by Symantec, the total cost of cybercrime in 2013 was $113 million!
Thankfully a FlashRouter can be the remedy to these problems, due to the inclusion of VPNs and encrypting your Wi-Fi signal/activity, along with a wealth of features such as power saver mode, graphing your network usage, managing network access restrictions and a firewall.
Future Versions of Wi-Fi Standards
Wireless AC is just starting to become a reality after its inclusion in the newest iPhone, but even more versions are on the way. Some future protocols have been names as extensions of the 802.11ac naming protocol: 802.11ah,(targeted for the end of 2016), 802.11aj, and 802.11ax (coming at you around 2019).
802.11ah is reported to boast lower energy consumption and other features adhering to the concept of “The Internet Of Things”, the concept of connecting objects such as blenders and coffee makers over Wi-Fi so you could, say, have your coffee machine send you an email when it needs its filter replaced.
Barely anything is known about 802.11aj, except for hints of improved performance. As for 802.11ax, reported Huawei 802.11ax device hit a max speed of 10.53Gbps, or around 1.4 gigabytes of data transferred per second.
Who knows what the future of Wi-Fi will bring? Whatever it is the FlashRouter team will be here to help you get the most out of your WiFi network!
(Editor’s Note: This post was written by our new contributor Theo, a writer with a deep interest in technology who just so happens to be 15. Sadly, he is a bit young for the internship he applied for at FlashRouters but we were more than happy to provide this space for him to explore his interests while providing some helpful information for our users. While this post was edited by our team, the content was written exclusively by him.)