Happy 25th Birthday to Wi-Fi

The IEEE standards community celebrates a global success story while looking ahead

28 September 2015

The IEEE 802.11 standard—known to many by its brand name Wi-Fi—turns 25 this year, making it a worthy occasion to celebrate how this universal enabler of wireless and localized Internet access has changed our lives. Thanks to ongoing enhancements to this versatile standard, we can look forward to even more innovation. The IEEE 802.11 Standard will have significant future roles in the Internet of Things (IoT), wearable technology, and other unforeseen uses.

In an era in which we tacitly accept rapid changes in how we live our lives, IEEE 802.11 provides a concrete example of how our lifestyles can be revolutionized by technology. Today, everyone with a smart device and Wi-Fi connectivity has tools for productivity, communications, and entertainment at their fingertips thanks to the standard.

Wi-Fi hot spots in public spaces as well as homes and businesses enable us to manage our personal and professional lives and stay current with news, social media, business data, and myriad other uses. This ready access to information, data, and social connections has proven to be a liberating and empowering force in societies around the world. And it has influenced how businesses operate by offering fast Wi-Fi to customers, including in coffee shops and hotels, which can boost their profits.

All of this happens because IEEE 802.11 largely operates autonomously. No one is needed to control it. Its built-in intelligence copes with a large number of connections. As more devices are added to a Wi-Fi network, everyone’s connection might slow down a bit, but it still just works. Simply put, Wi-Fi is resilient and robust and, due to the IEEE 802.11 standard, it is essentially plug-and-play.

A SUCCESS STORY

These attributes have proven immensely valuable. As much as 60 percent of all mobile data transfers around the world are forecast to be transported by 2019 over Wi-Fi technology based on the IEEE 802.11, according to Jupiter Research. According to the consulting firm Deloitte, Wi-Fi is becoming the medium of choice: two-thirds of U.S consumers prefer Wi-Fi to cellular connectivity. Though it is difficult to quantify in terms of dollars, consumers’ preference for Wi-Fi connectivity, its global ubiquity, and its ease of use, as well as myriad businesses’ use of it as a market differentiator, clearly generates significant economic value every day.

Celebrating the standards development process that created IEEE 802.11 is just as important as cheering the wonderful innovations it has spawned, especially as the process continues to produce further innovations.

THE REST IS HISTORY

When the U.S. Federal Communications Commission opened the 2.4-2.5 gigahertz spectrum for use for individual and non-licensed applications in the late 1980s, IEEE seized upon the need for a standard that linked wireless communications and networking infrastructure. Work began in September 1990, and the first version of IEEE 802.11 was published in June 1997.

The development of IEEE 802 in general, and IEEE 802.11 in particular, reflects OpenStand principles. Everybody has equal access to attend our meetings and present their ideas. Our documentation of the process is accessible to the public. We sometimes consider thousands of comments, any of which might identify a fatal bug or provide an insight that improves the standard.

Many participants in the standards development process come from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in related industries, which have an economic incentive to influence the standard to serve the widest possible markets. In the case of IEEE 802.11, the Wi-Fi Alliance—an industry group—has provided valuable insight into end-use markets. When work begins on a new standard or an enhancement to an existing one, we send a formal request to the Wi-Fi Alliance, asking for OEMs’ views on important usage models for the technology.

The end uses envisioned by OEMs drive new features into a standard, which eventually end up in products. Successful products are widely adopted, driving economies of scale, which grow markets and drive OEM revenue and broad economic benefits—the classic virtuous cycle supported by standards. Therefore, an industry-recognized standard with general consensus and support has proven to be the path to market success. The global ubiquity of the IEEE 802.11 standard proves my point.  

High-quality standards from the IEEE 802.11 family of working groups and market intelligence, branding certification, and interoperability testing from the Wi-Fi Alliance have created a hugely successful ecosystem. This collaborative process continues to bear fruit. Various enhancements to IEEE 802.11 are underway.

LOOKING AHEAD

As you read this article, the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LAN Working Group is crafting a series of IEEE 802.11 enhancements, such as IEEE P802.11ax to meet the demands of dense wireless local area network (LAN) deployments such as those found in stadiums, shopping malls, and other densely populated locations. When work on IEEE 802.11 began 25 years ago, the goal was the development of an interoperable wireless standard that could deliver a data rate of over 1 megabit per second. Today, the IEEE P802.11ax enhancement is aiming to provide a more than 10,000-fold increase over the standard’s initial data rate. The implications for existing and unforeseen use cases are staggering.

In fact, a variety of wireless LAN enhancements beyond higher data rates are in the works, including precise indoor location, faster connection setup, and utilization of the 900 unlicensed band. The IEEE 802.11 Working Group is pursuing other enhancements for more efficient use of radio spectrum, advanced data security measures, quality of service over the air interface, and special regional extensions for China, in order to meet its regulatory requirements for short-range radio equipment. Another project—IEEE 802.11ah—focuses on the nascent IoT market and will address requirements of short message efficiencies.

The rapid and ubiquitous uptake of Wi-Fi does bring challenges. Companies, schools, and other organizations are swiftly adopting BYOD (bring your own device) practices and need to develop sensible, secure policies as well. Breaches in Wi-Fi security come with its rapid growth, and that is being addressed as we speak.

Simply put, the open, collaborative standards development process has produced a global success story with the IEEE 802.11 standard. And these new enhancements will support future products and services that lead to an even more versatile, productive and fun user experience.

IEEE Senior Member Adrian Stephens is chair of the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LAN Working Group. 

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