Author’s Note: We want to thank Fred Niehaus, a 25-year veteran of Cisco, Aironet, and Telxon for providing the early history, and reaching out to other Cisco employees who were there to witness the beginnings of Wi-Fi.

New technologies don’t just arrive, wholly formed, on the doorstep of customers.  The right people, building blocks, business drivers, and regulations need to be in place to make them happen.

Take Wi-Fi.  Thirty-five years ago this week, when Baby Cisco was celebrating its first birthday, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted a decision that allowed radio manufacturers to use a spread spectrum signal to transmit data.

At the time, companies were looking to improve retail barcode systems to enable them to be used wirelessly. But that technology, and that 1985 FCC decision that enabled spread spectrum for it to work, did something far more important – it laid the groundwork for the future of Wi-Fi. In those 35 years since that pivotal decision, wireless technology has come a long way.

Here’s Cisco’s story, one that’s contributed to the wireless existence powering today’s new age of connectivity. It begins with entrepreneurs, engineers and inventors who were at work well before most of us could envision the connectivity powering our economy today.

In 1986, a Canadian company, Telesystems SLW, agreeing that spread spectrum could be a game-changer for barcode scanning and inventory control,  began to develop a system using Spread Spectrum technology to replace the UHF single channel system used by companies like Telxon Inc.  By 1988, Telesystems had switched to unlicensed spectrum in the 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz bands and received the very first spread spectrum radio authorization from the FCC for a radio operating in the 900 MHz band.

Telesystems’ principle customer, Telxon, thought highly enough of the unlicensed spread spectrum solution that in 1992, Telxon bought Telesystems, and started looking to expand use cases. There was no question that enterprise customers wanted wireless solutions, as Telxon immediately closed deals with Wal-Mart, Ford, Hertz and other large companies based on this new unlicensed technology. It formed OEM licensing relationships with IBM, Dell and others.

By 1994, Telxon spun off the wireless business, and dubbed it “Aironet.” And by 1995, Aironet had shipped over 300,000 wireless devices (both client and Access Points) nationwide.

The activity and energy around wireless solutions led Aironet and other industry players to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which formed a wireless ethernet standards group in 1997 (now known throughout industry as IEEE 802.11).  Aironet was no exception, creating the very first IEEE 802.11 products that could leap past the throughput standard of the day — 1 Mbps, then 2, then 4, and finally 11 Mbps achieved with the introduction of IEEE 802.11(b).

At the time, 11 Mbps was a big deal, as it enabled wireless to achieve throughput speeds equivalent to wired ethernet for the first time. Some other early Aironet innovations and first to market include Wireless client cards, Access Points and Wireless Bridges.

By 1999, the industry was debating “convergence” of voice, data, and video over ethernet, both wired and wireless.  At the 1999 NetWorld + Interop Atlanta trade show, an enterprising Aironet employee gathered several vendors together for lunch and proposed an alliance for the purposes of interoperability.  The “Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance” was born – a group that in 2002 changed its name to what we now know as the Wi-Fi Alliance.

1999 was important for another reason: Cisco Systems purchased Aironet, in no small part because large enterprise customers, such as Microsoft, were flocking to Aironet’s 802.11 technology. And in 2000, Cisco bought an Australian company, Radiata, Inc. to round out its portfolio.

Cisco has built on this foundation adding more wireless technology over the years:

  • 2005: Airespace became a part of Cisco. Their location and controller-based systems were integrated into its Aironet products.
  • 2005: Scientific Atlanta was acquired by Cisco. The integrated cable modem was added into Aironet outdoor WLAN products.
  • 2007: Cognio joined Cisco bringing their expertise in Radio Frequency (RF) Spectrum Analysis which was integrated into Aironet products.
  • 2007: Navini Networks was acquired by Cisco. Their WiMax and other RF resources were leveraged into the Aironet Line.
  • 2012: Meraki joins Cisco bringing their cloud-based services to Wi-Fi customers.

And the innovation kept coming.

As we move into the future with Catalyst WLAN Products, Cisco is leading innovation with products like the Cisco-Catalyst 9130 with Cisco industry firsts – among them:

  • First AP in the industry to offer an 8×8 Access Point with external antennas
  • Innovative Cisco RF ASIC – supporting, e.g., spectrum analysis for real-time interference detection, deep packet inspection, real-time analytics, zero-wait dual filter DFS
  • Single insertion DART external antenna connector to reduce installation time and addresses challenging RF areas
  • Tri-radio to enable 8×8 5GHz and 4×4 2.4Ghz, or micro cell 5GHz, macro cell 5GHz and 2.4Ghz
  • “Multi-lingual” to enable communication with Bluetooth and Zigbee
  • Intelligent – enabling client analytics to enhance Cisco DNA Assurance on the enterprise network.
  • Integrated security for rogue detection and management
  • Radio Resource Management for dynamic channel and power selection
  • mGig for high-throughput Ethernet communications.

While this is Cisco’s story, the broader revolution in Wi-Fi and enabled by Wi-Fi required innovation from industry and leadership from government. The FCC’s foresight into a future of connectivity untethered us and paved the way for Wi-Fi technology that keeps us working, learning, streaming and playing.

That’s why it’s no surprise that the FCC has continued the tradition of paving the way for American innovation last week voting unanimously to open up the 6 GHz band for indoor Wi-Fi use. This landmark decision echoed their vision from 35 years ago marking the next great leap in wireless technology.

In these 35 years since the FCC first allocated spectrum for Wi-Fi, we have only seen the beginning of what’s possible. Happy anniversary to spread spectrum radio!