Since its inception, WiFi has played an integral role in keeping us connected at home and in public. We’ve come to expect a standard degree of connectivity wherever we go, and regularly rely on WiFi to maintain our productivity, our organization, our health, and even our protection. Recent advances in WiFi technology has greatly contributed to the Internet of Things, allowing us to be even more connected than ever before. But how many of us know the full history behind WiFi technology? How exactly does it work? And just how far it has come in 20 years? Here we’ve explored the evolution of WiFi, from where it began, what it has helped us achieve, and what future it promises us as we become increasingly interconnected.

What is WiFi, and How Does it Work?

At a base level, WiFi is a way of getting broadband internet to a device using wireless transmitters and radio signals. Once a transmitter receives data from the internet, it converts the data into a radio signal that can be received and read by WiFi enabled devices. Information is then exchanged between the transmitter and the device.

Where it All Began

WiFi was first released for consumers in 1997, when a committee called 802.11 was created. This lead to the creation of IEEE802.11, which refers to a set of standards that define communication for wireless local area networks (WLANs). Following this, a basic specification for WiFi was established, allowing two megabytes per second of data transfer wirelessly between devices. This sparked a development in prototype equipment (routers) to comply with IEEE802.11, and in 1999, WiFi was introduced for home use.

WiFi Frequencies

WiFi uses electromagnetic waves to communicate data that run at two main frequencies: 2.4Ghz (802.11b) and 5Ghz (802.11a). For many years, 2.4Ghz was a popular choice for WiFi users, as it  worked with most mainstream devices and was less expensive than 11a.

Getting Stronger

In 2003, faster speeds and distance coverage of the earlier WiFi versions combined to make the 802.11g standard. Routers were getting better too, with higher power and further coverage than ever before. WiFi was beginning to catch up – competing with the speed of the fastest wired connections.

2009 – The Arrival of 802.11n

2009 saw the final version of the 802.11n, which was even faster and more reliable than its predecessor. This increase in efficiency is attributed to ‘Multiple input multiple output’ data (MIMOs), which uses multiple antennas to enhance communication of both the transmitter and receiver. This allowed for significant increases in data without the need for higher bandwidth or transmit power.

Overcrowded

The 2.4 Ghz extended range meant that an increasing number of devices (from baby monitors to bluetooth) were using the same frequency, causing it to become overcrowded and slower. Consequently, 5Ghz became the more attractive option.

Simultaneous Dual-Band Routers

To solve this issue, dual-band routers were created. These routers contained two types of wireless radios that could simultaneously support connections on both 2.4 GHz and 5GHz links. By default, devices in range of a dual-band router would automatically connect to the faster, more efficient 5GHz frequency. However, if a device was  further away or behind walls, the 2.4Ghz could be used as a backup.

2012 Onwards

801.11ac aimed to make the 5Ghz range better: it had four times the speed of WiFi 801.11n, a greater width, and the ability to support more antennas, meaning data could be sent more quickly. 2012 also saw the birth of the Beamforming concept, which is explained by Eric Geier as focusing signals and concentrating data transmission so that more data reaches the target device. He notes: ‘Instead of broadcasting a signal to a wide area, hoping to reach your target, why not concentrate the signal and aim it directly at the target?’

WiFi Today and the Internet of Things

The use of WiFi today is summed up nicely by Rethink Wireless: “WiFi performance continues to improve and it’s one of the most ubiquitous wireless communications technologies in use today. It’s easy to install, simple to use and economical too. WiFi Access Points are now set up at home and in public hotspots, giving convenient internet access to everything from laptops to smartphones. Encryption technologies make WiFi secure, keeping out unwanted intruders from these wireless communications.”

But WiFi is more about simply getting online to check email or browse social feeds. It has also enabled  a mind-blowing number of consumer electronics and computing devices to become interconnected and exchange information – a phenomenon known as Internet of Things. According to  Wi-FI.org, the IoT is “one of the most exciting waves of innovation the world has witnessed” and that “its potential has only just begun to emerge.” WiFi based businesses like Purple  demonstrate just how much potential can be leveraged for businesses: with an ever increasing amount of WiFi-enabled devices coming on the market, Purple allows its customers to gain incredibly thorough amounts of user data through the likes of location services, social login, and a wealth of digital marketing tools.

It’s clear that WiFi is no longer a one-way street – it has become an essential part of our personal and professional day-to-day, and is constantly improving our efficiency, our communication, and is persistently encourages the technology industry to push the boundaries of what’s possible.

All in all, the capabilities of WiFi are endless, and with the way things are going, we are incredibly excited to see what the future holds.