A Brief History of the Evolution of WiFi

A Brief History of the Evolution of WiFi

Many of the devices that we use every day are WiFi capable, and a brief history of the evolution of WiFi shows how this technology is integral to our lives. WiFi may have modest roots, but the number of patents involved, and the performance improvements have transformed it into a staple technology that is capable of great feats.

What is WiFi?

WiFi is a radio technology and part of an excellent family of technologies used for wireless networking or Wireless Local Area Networking (WLAN). The name “WiFi” is a trademarked term belonging to the WiFi Alliance.

This group uses its trademark to restrict how the use of the term in reference to products and potential WiFi Certified devices must undergo rigorous interoperability testing. Once these products pass the certification stage they can be called “WiFi Certified.”

WiFi uses several parts of the protocol family IEEE 802, and it’s designed to work well with its wired counterpart technology, Ethernet. Many devices use WiFi technology, including:

  • Desktop computers
  • TVs
  • Printers
  • Gaming Consoles
  • Mobile Phones
  • Tablets

More recent devices that are WiFi-enabled include smart TVs, digital cameras, drones, and cars. How these devices use WiFi will vary from one product to another, but information sharing, location data, and services are standard functions.

Devices that are compatible with WiFi technologies can talk to one another, and wireless access points can help to connect wireless devices to wired ones that use the Ethernet. A wireless access point, or hotspot, has a total range of around 65 feet when inside, but a greater range outdoors where there are fewer obstacles.

A single hotspot can cover a small area such as a single room, or it can be set up over a large space that spans several miles. This total area receives coverage by using multiple access points that overlap to create a fully covered area.

Like many technologies, when we look at a brief history of the evolution of WiFi, we find that there have been several versions and protocol standards that have helped to shape the capabilities of this technology.

WiFi Range

Many of these protocols have changed the speed of WiFi connections, and the range that they can cover. There are also different wavelengths used for WiFi, and these include:

  • 2.4 gigahertz radio bands
  • five gigahertz radio bands

These two bands work well for WiFi points that are within the same range of sight, but some materials found in our environment will absorb these wavelengths or reflect them.

This interference is part of what restricts the range that WiFi has indoors, but it can also help keep WiFi networks more separate when in a crowded area.

With the right hardware in place, WiFi speeds can reach one Gigabit per second, which helps to transfer data very quickly compared to lower speeds.


WiFi is thought to be more vulnerable to malicious attacks than networks that are wired, and this is because anyone can connect with the WiFi if it’s left unprotected. The network is vulnerable to hacking even if a password is in place.

The group of technologies that help to protect the WiFi network is called WiFi Protected Access or WPA. This technology is an essential part of the evolution of WiFi as upgrades, patches, and general improvements are what continue to protect the information that transmits over WiFi networks.

WiFi Protected Access protects both enterprise and personal networks and is updated to meet security needs as they arise. Despite these updates, WiFi continues to be less secure than other methods of transmitting data and is not suitable for sending confidential data.

When Was WiFi Invented?

The creation and implementation of WiFi was a somewhat gradual event, and it’s hard to say when it first appeared in a commercial or test environment. We do know several dates for how it got released to the public, but before that time wired methods were the first option.

Here are some important historical dates regarding the evolution of WiFi:

  • 1971: ALOHA net connects the Islands of Hawaii with a wireless packet network using the ALOHA protocol.
  • 1985: The U.S. Federal Communications Commission designates the ISM band for use by unlicensed parties. These are the same frequencies used by your microwave and other appliances and are susceptible to interference.
  • 1991: The NCR Corporation and AT&T Corporation invent WaveLAN to use with cashier systems. WaveLAN is the predecessor to the 802.11 protocol.
  • 1997: The initial 802.11 protocol is released and has a 2 Mbit/s speed
  • 1999: The 802.11 protocol gets upgraded so it can provide a faster rate of 11 Mbit/s and this increase makes the technology more popular

In the mid-1990s, an Australian radio-astronomer named Dr. John O’Sullivan, along with some colleagues, developed a patent that is essential for the function of WiFi.

This patent started as a failed experiment conducted by the doctor in the hopes of finding mini black holes, but as a result, these individuals have received the credit for inventing WiFi.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) obtained these vital patents in 1992 and 1996 and worked to clear up the WiFi signal in hopes of increasing the speed.

The WiFi Alliance

The WiFi Alliance was a trade organization that formed in 1999 with the sole purpose of holding the WiFi trademark. Many products sell under this trademark, and it’s the WiFi Alliance that oversees each one meeting rigorous standards.

These days just about any product can claim that it’s WiFi capable, and there is very little evidence that the WiFi Alliance is doing anything to prevent cheap products from entering the market.

One crucial distinction to note is that few if any of these products are claiming to be WiFi Certified as it appears consumers no longer care much about this certification for most products they use in their everyday lives.

WiFi Related Patents

There are a large number of patents used in WiFi technology, and these patents belong to a large number of organizations that each have their mission. For example, in 2009 fourteen technology organizations reached a settlement with CSIRO for infringing on their patents.

This settlement amounted to $1 billion and also lead to WiFi being called an Australian invention despite contradicting information.

In 2012, CSIRO received an award of another $220 million in WiFi patent infringement settlements, and many estimate that U.S. based companies owe another $1 billion in royalties.

These large settlements are a testament to how often WiFi gets utilized and how far it has spread across the globe. Many of the electronics we use every day have WiFi capabilities, and some of those objects we can’t imagine using without this technology.

WiFi Terminology

Looking back at documentation, we can find the name “WiFi” used around August of 1999 despite the technology existing and being used long before then. It would appear that the term came from a consulting firm called Interbrand, who was hired by The WiFi Alliance.

The WiFi Alliance wanted a name for their technology that was easier to remember and catchier than “IEEE 802.11 Direct Sequence.” The term “WiFi” itself has no meaning beyond being a play on words, and the founding member of The WiFi Alliance, Phil Belanger has revealed the name to be a pun.

Interbrand created “WiFi” as a play on the word “hi-fi,” which refers to “high fidelity” or audio technology that is of high quality. So “WiFi” is short for “Wireless Fidelity” and beyond that the term has no further meaning.

After this name was selected, The WiFi Alliance began to use the advertising slogan “The Standard for Wireless Fidelity,” but this only lasted a short time. Some publications listed The WiFi Alliance as the “Wireless Fidelity Alliance” and the organization changed its marketing tactics.

It was also Interbrand that created the WiFi logo that looked like a yin-yang. This logo was the visual indicator that a product was WiFi certified and capable of interoperability. The WiFi Alliance does not currently approve of any other variations of how WiFi is written, such as “WiFi.”

The IEEE is another organization that is separate from The WiFi Alliance, but they are related. The IEEE website has confirmed that WiFi is short for Wireless Fidelity.

Hardware and Networks

The computers we use every day can connect to the WiFi using a Wireless Network Interface Controller, and it’s this pairing that is labeled a “station.” When you look at a wireless network as a whole and the number of devices associated with that network, that is called a “service set.

A service set is assigned an identifier called a Service Set Identifiers or an SSID, and these groups have designations, such as:

  • Local
  • Extended
  • Independent
  • Mesh

Devices in the network attached to this SSID, which tells them they can transmit information over that selected network. There can be a range of different receivers within one area, but these devices will ignore packets of information that come from networks with an SSID that doesn’t match their own.

WiFi Uses and Applications

When your device is within range of a router that connects to the internet, your device should be able to access that WiFi network provided it is a public network. Many WiFi networks are protected with passwords to prevent anyone from walking up and using the WiFi network, and many shops and commercial businesses offer their patrons free WiFi.

For larger areas, more than one router may be present to create a larger WiFi covered area, and there may also be hotspots that work to extend that usable area as well. Many companies offer hotspots along with internet service, and cellular communications providers are an example of those companies.

In places like London, mesh WiFi networks have been put in place so that people can use WiFi wherever they are in the city. This coverage is achieved through a web of routers and wireless access points spaced strategically.

When creating a mesh network of this sort that needs to cover several miles, it’s essential to take a look at the landscape and identify objects that may interfere with the WiFi signal in some way.

Large buildings are common culprits when it comes to weak signals in small areas of a mesh network, but reflective services are just as detrimental to signal strength.

Modern buildings em>haven’t changed much to accommodate WiFi networks, and their internal layouts often require more hardware to be used for the whole building to have suitable WiFi access.

It’s also important to note that certain materials such as metal may be more detrimental to signal strength than other materials such as plastic or wood. These materials can also interfere with the signal that your cell phone receives, but they don’t have any impact on devices currently connected to a wired network.

Carnegie Mellon University was the first to have campus-wide wireless access, called Wireless Andrew. Their Pittsburgh campus had this network set up in 1993 before there was WiFi branding in place.

Since then, many universities have followed suit despite their size, and campus-wide WiFi networks have become very typical and expected.

Final Thoughts

Looking back on a brief history of the evolution of WiFi, it’s easy to see that there were several iterations of this technology before we arrived at the version that we use today. WiFi has become such an everyday part of our lives, that we frequently take it for granted that we’ll be able to use our devices wherever we go.

WiFi uses many different patents that restrict its use and advancement somewhat, but devices continue to evolve and improve the way we can use this technology.

Computers, tablets, and mobile devices are some of the most common electronics that use WiFi, but there are a considerable number of commercial machines and other products that use this technology as well.

In the future, we can expect continued advancement in WiFi technology and devices as the protocols are improved, the hardware evolves, and the signals strengthened.

Blair Campbell

Founder of GetInternet. Blair studied computer science at the California Institute of Technology Computing and Mathematical Sciences program, but he enjoys writing on the side. He grew up in southern California and now lives in Denver, Colorado.