Wi-Fi uses both single carrier direct sequence spread spectrum radio technology (part of the larger family of spread spectrum systems) and multi-carrier OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing) radio technology. The regulations for unlicensed spread spectrum enabled the development of Wi-Fi, its onetime competitor HomeRF, Bluetooth, and many other products such as some types of cordless telephones.
Unlicensed spread spectrum was first made available in the US by the Federal Communications Commission in 1985 and these FCC regulations were later copied with some changes in many other countries enabling use of this technology in all major countries. The FCC action was proposed by Michael Marcus of the FCC staff in 1980 and the subsequent regulatory action took 5 more years. It was part of a broader proposal to allow civil use of spread spectrum technology and was opposed at the time by mainstream equipment manufacturers and many radio system operators.
The precursor to Wi-Fi was invented in 1991 by NCR Corporation/AT&T (later Lucent & Agere Systems) in Nieuwegein, the Netherlands. It was initially intended for cashier systems; the first wireless products were brought on the market under the name WaveLAN with speeds of 1 Mbit/s to 2 Mbit/s. Vic Hayes, who held the chair of IEEE 802.11 for 10 years and has been named the ‘father of Wi-Fi,’ was involved in designing standards such as IEEE 802.11b, and 802.11a. The original patents behind 802.11 Wi-Fi technology, filed in 1996, are held by the CSIRO, an Australian research body. The patents have been the subject of protracted and ongoing legal battles between the CSIRO and major IT corporations over the non-payment of royalties. In 2009 the CSIRO reached a settlement with 14 companies, including Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Dell, Toshiba, ASUS, Microsoft and Nintendo, on the condition that the CSIRO did not broadcast the resolution.
Wi-Fi allows local area networks (LANs) to be deployed without wires for client devices, typically reducing the costs of network deployment and expansion. Spaces where cables cannot be run, such as outdoor areas and historical buildings, can host wireless LANs.
Wireless network adapters are now built into most laptops. The price of chipsets for Wi-Fi continues to drop, making it an economical networking option included in even more devices. Wi-Fi has become widespread in corporate infrastructures.
Different competitive brands of access points and client network interfaces are inter-operable at a basic level of service. Products designated as “Wi-Fi Certified” by the Wi-Fi Alliance are backwards compatible. Wi-Fi is a global set of standards. Unlike mobile telephones, any standard Wi-Fi device will work anywhere in the world.
Wi-Fi is widely available in more than 220,000 public hotspots and tens of millions of homes and corporate and university campuses worldwide. The current version of Wi-Fi Protected Access encryption (WPA2) is not easily defeated, provided strong passwords are used. New protocols for Quality of Service (WMM) make Wi-Fi more suitable for latency-sensitive applications (such as voice and video), and power saving mechanisms (WMM Power Save) improve battery operation.
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