Most people under 30 would probably find it difficult to imagine a world without Wi-Fi, and probably do not realise it is a trademark for a specific kind of WLAN (wireless local area network).
Since the Wi-Fi alliance trade association was formed in 1999 to hold the trademark and further develop the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 family of standards, Wi-Fi has gone from strength to strength.
Ten years ago Wi-Fi was starting to make inroads into the dominance of fixed-link Ethernet in homes and offices, and access points (APs) or hotspots were being installed in educational institutions. Analysts were predicting 100 million people around the world would be using Wi-Fi by 2006.
The first upgrade to the initial IEEE standards (802.11b for 2.4 GHz unlicensed spectrum and 802.11a for the also unlicensed 5GHz band) came with 802.11g in 2003 which boosted both data transfer speeds and the distance covered. And it was this that allowed Wi-Fi to compete with, and replace, wired connections.
By the time of the next significant upgrade, 802.11n in 2009, Wi-Fi could be described as ubiquitous; it was not just in homes, schools, and offices but also in airports, hotels, cafes and shops. The increasingly crowded 2.4GHz band saw the focus starting to shift to 5GHz, and dual-band routers which can switch between the two started to come onto the market.
Until this point Wi-Fi public hot spots were generally provided by fixed-line operators. But the development of 802.11ac in 2012, with four times the speed of 802.11n, plus the concept of Beamforming to send directed signals, really opened the market up. The certification of Passpoint technology by the Wi-Fi Alliance is allowing users to seamlessly connect to Wi-Fi APs without authentication.
Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) started to roll out their own Wi-Fi networks in urban areas, wanting to take the strain off their limited spectrum resources as the data tsunami threatened to swamp them. It is also proving more cost effective in crowded cities to roll out a network of overlapping APs rather than more cellular infrastructure.
Cable operators have also got into the act as a way to have a mobile offering alongside fixed line, Internet access and TV. They are forming alliances so their customers can roam between different operator’s Wi-Fi hotspots. At the international level there are more than 200 million public hotspots with thousands of new ones being added daily.
By 2017 it is estimated that 60% of wireless data traffic will be offloaded to Wi-Fi networks. Some of this will be paid for, but some will not. There will also be a lot of free voice and video calls over Wi-Fi via Apple’s Facetime, Skype, WhatsApp and other services. In cities at least, it may not be necessary to use cellular networks at all for voice or data in the not too distant future, which poses a major challenge to MNOs who will have to rethink their business strategies.