20 Years of Wi-Fi with Extreme Networks

When you first started working with Wi-Fi, what was your vision for its future?

To be honest, I think my original vision of Wi-Fi was short-sighted. I was just happy I could use a laptop computer anywhere in my house or place of business without having to drag an Ethernet cable behind me. Twenty years later, I have a much broader field-of-view. In the next 20 years, a multitude of possibilities lies ahead.

In the early days, what were the challenges around Wi-Fi adoption?

Consumerization of IT is a phrase used to describe a shift in information technology (IT) that begins in the consumer market and moves into business and government facilities. It has become commonplace for employees to introduce consumer market devices into the workplace after already embracing this new technology at home. In the early days of Wi-Fi, most businesses did not provide Wi-Fi access to the corporate network.

Due to the limited wireless security options available at that time, along with a general mistrust

of the unknown, it was common for companies to avoid implementing Wi-Fi. However, because employees enjoyed the flexibility of Wi-Fi at home, they began to bring small office/home office (SOHO) wireless routers into the office and install them, despite the objections of the IT department. Eventually, businesses and government agencies realized they needed to deploy Wi-Fi to take advantage of the technology as well as manage the technology.

To address the early security concerns, Wi-Fi Alliance initiated the Wi-Fi Protected Access® (WPA™) certification in 2003. Over the years, Wi-Fi security has remained a top priority, including the upgraded Wi-Fi CERTIFIED WPA3™ security certification.

What has made Wi-Fi the success story it is today?

Wi-Fi truly is a cultural technology success story. If you ask the average person about their 802.11 wireless network, they may give you a strange look. The name that people will always recognize for the technology is Wi-Fi. As a matter of fact, Wi-Fi has become an essential part of our daily worldwide communications culture. Wi-Fi technology is ingrained into our everyday lives. Wi-Fi is a success story because of mobility. Wi-Fi is the wireless networking technology that provides users the freedom to access a wealth of information via mobile communication.

What are some of the most innovative Wi-Fi use cases?

Personal mobile Wi-Fi devices were a game-changer. Smartphones and tablets have probably been the most successful use case for Wi-Fi so far. The Apple iPhone was first introduced in June 2007, and the first iPad debuted in April 2010. HTC introduced the first Android smartphone in October 2008. These devices were originally meant for personal use, but in a very short time, employees wanted to also use their personal devices on company WLANs. Additionally, software developers began to create enterprise mobile business applications for smartphones and tablets. Businesses began to purchase and deploy tablets and smartphones to take advantage of these mobile enterprise applications. Tablets and smartphones provided the true mobility that employees and businesses desired, and within a few years, the number of mobile devices connecting to corporate WLANs surpassed the number of laptop connections.

This trend continues, with many, if not most, devices shipping with Wi-Fi as the primary network adapter. Most laptop computers now ship without an Ethernet adapter because the laptop Wi-Fi radio is used for primary network access.

Why is it critical for Wi-Fi to have more unlicensed spectrum?

The 2.4 GHz band has long been overcrowded for Wi-Fi communications and lacks the needed frequency space for quality enterprise WLANs. Additionally, numerous non-Wi-Fi transmitters also use the 2.4 GHz band, which results in degradation of performance as a result of RF interference. The 2.4 GHz band is at best considered a “best effort” band. Currently, the 5 GHz unlicensed frequency channels are the best choice for critical enterprise WLAN communications. While the 5 GHz band does offer many more channels, it too is becoming crowded and may also have to share frequency space with other RF communications, such as unlicensed LTE.

As Wi-Fi client populations continue to grow at an exponential rate, more unlicensed spectrum such as the 6 GHz frequency band will be needed. Furthermore, many more billions of dollars will be generated into the world economy once more unlicensed spectrum becomes available.

What next-generation use case are you most excited about?

The last big paradigm shift in Wi-Fi was when Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) was introduced to the marketplace 10 years ago. At that time, the technology changed from single-input, single-output (SISO) radios to multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) radios. We went from a time when an RF phenomenon called multipath went from being a destructive RF behavior to a constructive RF behavior. The next generation of Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), is the biggest change for Wi-Fi in a decade. Wi-Fi 6 has the potential to be the next paradigm shift because of the real-world capability for multi-user Wi-Fi communications. Wi-Fi 6 opens the door for high-efficiency Wi-Fi communications. I am also personally excited about the future of artificial intelligence, machine-learning and data analytics of Wi-Fi networking usage.

This blog was originally posted to Wi-Fi.org on May 23, 2019.

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About the Author
David Coleman
Director, Wireless Networking at the Office of the CTO

David D. Coleman is the Director of Wireless Networking at the Office of the CTO for Extreme Networks. David is a technology evangelist, public speaker and proficient author.

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