The heart of tech is coming to the heart of the Mediterranean. Join TNW in València this March 🇪🇸

This article was published on November 30, 2016

WiFi and the coming IoT invasion

WiFi and the coming IoT invasion
William Watterson
Story by

William Watterson

Billy lives in Providence Rhode Island where by day he runs Beat the Streets Providence - a 501c3 starting scholastic wrestling teams in ord Billy lives in Providence Rhode Island where by day he runs Beat the Streets Providence - a 501c3 starting scholastic wrestling teams in order to inspire at-risk youth - and by night he is a freelance journalist and fiction writer. In his free time Billy enjoys playing the ukulele badly, fishing, backpacking, climbing, surfing (again badly), and pretending he is alternatively Indiana Jones and/or a Jedi.

In 2011 internet access was declared a human right by the United Nations. The report said that disconnecting people from their internet access was a human rights violation and against international law. Internet access is a human right.

Right beside the “right to life, liberty, and security of person,” the right to “recognition everywhere as a person before the law,” “the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty,” and “the right to freedom of movement” is the right to access the internet.

I will no longer sit quietly while New York City coffee shops deny me my God-given right to WiFi.

Only 20 years ago very few people had access to this right. In 1995 only 16 million people or 0.4 percent of the world’s population had access to the internet. Today a significantly larger number of people, 3.5 billion, have access to that right. And yet that is a little less than half of the world’s 7.4 billion person population – leaving approximately four billion people cut off from internet access.

According to the Internet Society wireless technology is poised to change this paradigm and connect the next few billion people. At this very moment the world’s technology leaders are conspiring to use wireless technology to bring internet connectivity to the whole world.

The potential of wireless technology is relatively inexpensive compared to the costs of extending landline networks or data, enabling it to penetrate the most remote corners of the world and enable free connectivity on every street corner. This makes wireless technology the perfect tool to extend the human right to internet access and to break down information and economic barriers.

What do our wireless rights consist of? Well wireless technology connects people through networks like Bluetooth, WiFi HaLow, and most ubiquitously WiFi to the internet and to other people and devices.  

So to start what exactly is WiFi?

A long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away

Though synonymous with internet connectivity, WiFi is not actually the same thing as the internet. WiFi is short for Wireless Fidelity and is a wireless networking technology that allows computers, mobile phones, tablets, and now countless IOT devices to communicate through a wireless signal. A WiFi signal is actually just a high-frequency radio signal that your devices pick up much in the same way that a radio can pick up a radio station signal.

The creation of WiFi cannot easily be traced to a single inventor or moment in time, but rather came into being over the course of a decade and half through a process of regulation and invention.

In 1985 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), opened several bands of wireless spectrum that could be used without a government license. This opened the door for communications entrepreneurs to bring wireless to the wider consumer market. However, not much progress was made because there was no standard wireless frequency in use.

This all changed when Vic Hayes, the “father of WiFi” and chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) committee, created the 802.11 standard in 1997.  The 802.11 standard established the radio frequency used for broadcasting a WiFi signal. The standard was highly complex, so in 1999 six companies – Intersil, 3Com, Nokia, Aironet, Symbol, and Lucent – created the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA). WECA’s purpose was to certify products that were compatible with the new standard, and thus, with each other. However, “WECA compatible” was almost as wordy as “IEEE802.11b compliant” so a consumer-friendly term was created: WiFi.

Finally, it was John O’Sullivan, a young Australlian PhD, and his research on the pulses emanating from exploding black holes in the late 1990s that made the use of WiFi practical. Sullivan’s research on radio-astronomy led to the development of a fast chip that could transmit a signal while reducing the echo. This invention, called the wireless local area network (WLAN), is the basis of the WiFi signal.

With a name, a usable product, and a common standard, WiFi was able to begin to catch on with consumers in 2001. It was championed by Apple who introduced the product on its new iBooks under the brand name AirPort.

2000 onward: WiFi eats its veggies and grows big and strong

Since then WiFi and wireless technology has evolved and scaled. Over time the standards (like the original 802.11x) for WiFi networks changed to radio spectrum standards that can transmit data at a much higher rate. They progressed from 802.11 to 802.11a and 802.11b in 1999, all the way to 802.11ad in 2016 with a theoretical max speed of 7Gbps which a pcworld article called “basically short-range super-WiFi,” and 802.11ah, also known as WiFi HaLow, which operates in frequency bands below one gigahertz, offering longer range, lower power connectivity crucial for IoT battery powered devices.

As the speed of WiFi has increased the number of WiFi Hotspots (and, thus, devices and people connected to WiFi) has increased dramatically too. Cities are expanding free WiFi across the globe – New York is converting all of its old payphones into free hotspots, Seoul has launched 10,000 hot spot, Bangalore became the first city in India to open up free WiFi, and Osaka not only has a comprehensive free WiFi network, but it even has a mascot Osaka Bob who helps people figure out how to use the network.

At the same time the world’s leading tech companies and philanthropists are investing in providing free WiFi to the areas of the world with the least access to the internet. Elon Musk started a project to beam free WiFi from satellites, Mark Zuckerberg has launched Facebook’s, and Google has launched Project Loon to beam WiFi down from air balloons.

To put it in perspective: In 2013 there were 6.3 million WiFi hotspots and today there are 167,998,370 (and growing) and 700 million people using them worldwide. By 2018 this number is expected to grow to 340 million global hotspots, or one WiFi hotspot for every twenty people on Earth.

We’re going to need a bigger boat

The massive and growing number of personal and mobile devices streaming data are on the verge of crippling WiFi networks and wireless carriers. While internet service providers have been doubling the bandwidth delivered to homes and businesses as fast as they can, users still never get the bandwidth promised because that bandwidth is shared.  

People are no longer connecting a single desktop computer to the internet. Now one person might connect a desktop, laptop, mobile phone, tablet, and any number of household items, accessories, tools, and countless other devices that are all part of the Internet of Things (IoT).

IoT is the panoply of devices with WiFi (or other wireless technology) and built-in sensors that connect the device to both its surroundings and to its network. There’s been an explosion of IoT devices over the past decade that poses a new challenge to the capability of current networks. With the advent of IoT, everything – from thermostats, to stoves, to watches, to shoes, to cars, and roadway – is getting connected and becoming wireless technology.

And soon, it might be rare to have a device that is not built with wireless technology. Currently it’s projected that 50 billion IoT devices will be connected by 2020 (there are only 10 billion today). When you scale this demand up by the millions and billions then you start to have a serious problem. These IoT problems are pushing the frontier of wireless technology.

This future still looks bright because new technologies on the horizon have the potential to make wireless connectivity significantly faster than ever before and optimized for IoT devices with lo-power high range capabilities:

  • Li-Fi technology will use LED bulbs to beam out wireless signals with 100x faster connectivity (224Gbps) – enough to download more than a dozen HD films in a second.
  • Bluetooth Low Energy (Smart): Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) is creating new Bluetooth standards to help IoT devices to communicate more energy-efficiently. This standard would work hand-in-hand with WiFi using Transport Discovery Service (TDS).
  • LoRa: derives its name from its long-range communication abilities is another low power wireless technology. LoRa use a “chirp-spread-spectrum” technique previously used in military and space applications that is designed to optimize the battery life-time, range, and cost of devices in its low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs).
  • WiFi HaLow and 802.11ad: Two new WiFi standards – 802.11ah (900 MHZ band) and 802.11ad – have been designed to help solve the IoT need for connectivity of a large number of devices over long distances. A WiFi Halow access point can associate more than 8,000 devices within one km and is ideal for low power consumption and long-range data transmission. 802.11ad
  • 5G: A new cellular network with higher speed, capacity, and much lower latency which will seamlessly incorporate WiFi.

The ideal future is one that allows mobile plans to switch between all of these networks and more so that your device can find the best and cheapest connections as you move.

Okay, but how do I make it work?

In the short-term, while you wait for the Li-Fis, Project Loons, Google Fibers, and LoRas of the world there are some easy steps and current technologies you can use to improve your access to and take advantage of your United Nations given right to internet.

  • Simple, Stupid: Make sure the laptop WiFi switch is on –  these do exist and if they are not on neither is your WiFi. Reboot your computer and wireless router. Move your wireless router around so it’s closer to where you are using your device. Easy.
  • Be Greedy, Don’t Share: WiFi routers and devices mostly use the 2.4GHZ radio band which has 11 channels. 3 of these channels can run at the same time without interfering with each other – 1,6, and 11. Most routers are set to channel 6 by default. This means on channel 6 your connection is bound to be horrendous. Change the channel to 1 or 11 and you will likely have better connection if there are other routers in your vicinity. See how to change your WiFi Router Channel here. Alternatively, you could seek and destroy all routers in the area. 
  • Level Up: It might be time for a router upgrade. Try the Netgear Nighthawk X10 Router. X10 is a new addition to the Netgear router family that promises no more buffering wait times or lag for internet users. The device has quad-stream (4×4) architecture, multi-user MIMO, and latest 60GHz 802.11ad technology (short-range super-WiFi mentioned above) making it top of its class.
Back to top