Hitting the Books: The thirty-year quest to make WiFi a connectivity reality

Establishing the wireless protocol took a lot more effort than just unplugging it and waiting a few seconds.

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The modern world of consumer tech wouldn't exist as we know it if not for the near-ubiquitous connectivity that Wi-Fi internet provides. It serves as the wireless link bridging our mobile devices and smart home appliances, enabling our streaming entertainment and connecting us to the global internet.

In his new book, Beyond Everywhere: How Wi-Fi Became the World’s Most Beloved Technology, Greg Ennis, who co-authored the proposal that became the technical basis for WiFi technology before founding the Wi-Fi Alliance and serving as its VP of Technology for a quarter century, guides readers on the fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) genesis of this now everyday technology. In the excerpt below, Ennis recounts the harrowing final days of pitching and presentations before ultimately convincing the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LAN standards committee to adopt their candidate protocol as well as examine the outside influence that Bob Metcalf — inventor of both Ethernet, the standard, and 3Com, the tech company — had on Wi-Fi's eventual emergence.

white writing on a blue background the V is a WiFi signal strength indicator
Post Hill Press

Excerpted from Beyond Everywhere: How Wi-Fi Became the World’s Most Beloved Technology (c) 2023 by Greg Ennis. Published by Post Hill Press. Used with permission.

With our DFWMAC foundation now chosen, the work for the IEEE committee calmed down into a deliberate process for approving the actual text language for the standard. There were still some big gaps that needed to be filled in—most important being an encryption scheme—but the committee settled into a routine of developing draft versions of the MAC sections of the ultimate standard document. At the January 1994 meeting in San Jose, I was selected to be Technical Editor of the entire (MAC+PHY) standard along with Bob O’Hara, and the two of us would continue to serve as editors through the first publication of the final standard in 1997.

The first draft of the MAC sections was basically our DFWMAC specification reformatted into the IEEE template. The development of the text was a well-established process within IEEE standards committees: as Bob and I would complete a draft, the members of the committee would submit comments, and at the subsequent meeting, there would be debates and decisions on improvements to the text. There were changes made to the packet formats, and detailed algorithmic language was developed for the operations of the protocol, but by and large, the conceptual framework of DFWMAC was left intact. In fact, nearly thirty years after DFWMAC was first proposed, its core ideas continue to form the foundation for Wi-Fi.

While this text-finalization process was going on, the technology refused to stand still. Advances in both radio communications theory and circuit design meant that higher speeds might be possible beyond the 2-megabit maximum in the draft standard. Many companies within the industry were starting to look at higher speeds even before the original standard was finally formally adopted in 1997. Achieving a speed greater than 10 megabits — comparable to standard Ethernet — had become the wireless LAN industry’s Holy Grail. The challenge was to do this while staying within the FCC’s requirements — something that would require both science and art.

Faster is always better, of course, but what was driving the push for 10 megabits? What wireless applications were really going to require 10-megabit speeds? The dominant applications for wireless LANs in the 1990s were the so-called “verticals” — for example, Symbol’s installations that involved handheld barcode scanners for inventory management. Such specialized wireless networks were installed by vertically integrated system providers offering a complete service package, including hardware, software, applications, training, and support, hence the “vertical” nomenclature. While 10-megabit speeds would be nice for these vertical applications, it probably wasn’t necessary, and if the cost were to go up, such speeds wouldn’t be justifiable. So instead, it would be the so-called “horizontal” market — wireless connectivity for general purpose computers — that drove this need for speed. In particular, the predominantly Ethernet-based office automation market, with PCs connected to shared printers and file servers, was seen as requiring faster speeds than the IEEE standard’s 2 megabits.

Bob Metcalfe is famous in the computer industry for three things: Ethernet, Metcalfe’s Law, and 3Com. He co-invented Ethernet; that’s simple enough and would be grounds for his fame all by itself. Metcalfe’s Law— which, of course, is not actually a law of physics but nonetheless seems to have real explanatory power— states that the value of a communication technology is proportional to the square of the number of connected devices. This intuitively plausible “law” explains the viral snowball effect that can result from the growing popularity of a network technology. But it would be Metcalfe’s 3Com that enters into our Wi-Fi story at this moment.

Metcalfe invented Ethernet while working at PARC, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. PARC played a key role in developing many of the most important technologies of today, including window-based graphic computer interfaces and laser printing, in addition to Ethernet. But Xerox is famous for “Fumbling the Future,” also the title of a 1999 book documenting how “Xerox invented, then ignored, the first personal computer,” since the innovations developed at PARC generally ended up being commercialized not by Xerox but by Apple and others. Not surprisingly, Metcalfe decided he needed a different company to take his Ethernet invention to the market, and in 1979, he formed 3Com with some partners.

This was the same year I joined Sytek, which had been founded just a couple of months prior. Like 3Com, Sytek focused on LAN products, although based on broadband cable television technology in contrast to 3Com’s Ethernet. But whereas Sytek concentrated on hardware, 3Com decided to also develop their own software supporting new LAN-based office applications for shared PC access to data files and printers. With these software products in combination with their Ethernet technology, 3Com became a dominant player in the booming office automation market during the nineties that followed the introduction of personal computers. Bob Metcalfe was famously skeptical about wireless LANs. In the August 16, 1993, issue of InfoWorld, he wrote up his opinion in a piece entitled “Wireless computing will flop — permanently”:

This isn’t to say there won’t be any wireless computing. Wireless mobile computers will eventually be as common as today’s pipeless mobile bathrooms. Porta-potties are found on planes and boats, on construction sites, at rock concerts, and other places where it is very inconvenient to run pipes. But bathrooms are still predominantly plumbed. For more or less the same reasons, computers will stay wired.

Was his comparison of wireless to porta-potties just sour grapes? After all, this is coming from the inventor of Ethernet, the very archetype of a wired network. In any event, we were fortunate that Metcalfe was no longer involved with 3Com management in 1996 — because 3Com now enters our story as a major catalyst for the development of Wi-Fi.

3Com’s strategy for wireless LANs was naturally a subject of great interest, as whatever direction they decided to take was going to be a significant factor in the market. As the premier Ethernet company with a customer base that was accustomed to 10-megabit speeds, it was clear that they wouldn’t take any steps unless the wireless speeds increased beyond the 2 megabits of the draft IEEE standard. But might they decide to stay out of wireless completely, like Bob Metcalfe counselled, to focus on their strong market position with wired Ethernet? And if they did decide to join the wireless world, would they develop their own technology to accomplish this? Or would they partner with an existing wireless developer? The task of navigating 3Com through this twisted path would fall to a disarmingly boyish business development whiz named Jeff Abramowitz, who approached me one afternoon quite unexpectedly.

Jeff tapped me on the shoulder at an IEEE meeting. “Hey, Greg, can I talk with you for a sec?” he whispered, and we both snuck quietly out of the meeting room. “Just wondering if you have any time available to take on a new project.” He didn’t even give me a chance to respond before continuing with a smile: “10 megabits. Wireless Ethernet.” The idea of working with the foremost Ethernet company on a high-speed version of 802.11 obviously enticed me, and I quickly said, “Let’s get together next week.”

He told me that they had already made some progress towards an internally developed implementation, but that in his opinion, it was more promising for them to partner with one of the major active players. 3Com wanted to procure a complete system of wireless LAN products that they could offer to their customer base, comprising access points and plug-in adapters (“client devices”) for both laptops and desktops. There would need to be a Request for Proposal developed, which would, of course, include both technical and business requirements, and Jeff looked to me to help formulate the technical requirements. The potential partners included Symbol, Lucent, Aironet, InTalk, and Harris Semiconductor, among others, and our first task was to develop this RFP to send out to these companies.

Symbol should need no introduction, having been my client and having played a major role in the development of the DFWMAC protocol that was selected as the foundation for the 802.11 standard. Lucent may sound like a new player, but in fact, this is simply our NCR Dutch colleagues from Utrecht — including Wim, Cees, Vic, and Bruce — under a new corporate name, NCR having been first bought by AT&T and then spun off into Lucent. Aironet is similarly an old friend under a new name — back at the start of our story, we saw that the very first wireless LAN product approved by the FCC was from a Canadian company called Telesystems, which eventually was merged into Telxon, with Aironet then being the result of a 1994 spinoff focusing on the wireless LAN business. And in another sign of the small-world nature of the wireless LAN industry at this time, my DFWMAC co-author, Phil Belanger, had moved from Xircom to Aironet in early 1996.

The two companies here who are truly new to our story are InTalk and Harris. InTalk was a small startup founded in 1996 in Cambridge, England (and then subsequently acquired by Nokia), whose engineers were significant contributors to the development of the final text within the 802.11 standard. Harris Corporation was a major defense contractor headquartered in Melbourne, Florida, who leveraged their radio system design experience into an early wireless LAN chip development project. Since they were focused on being a chip supplier rather than an equipment manufacturer, we didn’t expect them to submit their own proposal, but it was likely that other responders would incorporate their chips, so we certainly viewed them as an important player.

Over the first couple of months in 1997, Jeff and I worked up a Request for Proposal for 3Com to send out, along with a 3Com engineer named David Fisher, and by March we were able to provide the final version to various candidate partners. Given 3Com’s position in the general LAN market, the level of interest was high, and we indeed got a good set of proposals back from the companies we expected, including Symbol, Lucent, InTalk, and Aironet. These companies, along with Harris, quickly became our focus, and we began a process of intense engagement with all of them over the next several months, building relationships in the process that a year later would ultimately lead to the formation of the Wi-Fi Alliance.

Bob Metcalfe’s wireless skepticism had been soundly rejected by the very company he founded, with 3Com instead adopting the mantle of wireless evangelism. And Wireless Ethernet, soon to be christened Wi-Fi, was destined to outshine its wired LAN ancestor.

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