In 1980, I was in my second last of high school in Australia. My high school had one computer, which sat behind a locked door in the Mathematics Department. It was a Canon machine that was programmed in BASIC, with a single line LED display, an 8” floppy drive and an integrated printer. It was not connected to anything except an AC power cord.
A few mathematics teachers and a few students—including me—used to write programs, mainly for the fun of it. The computer was not used for any serious applications, at least partially because there weren’t a lot of serious applications for a computer like that back then. As the development of computing over the last 40 years has demonstrated, serious (and not so serious) applications are best enabled by connectivity to a network of machines and people around the globe!
Little did I know that when I was studying for my New South Wales Higher School Certificate in 1980 that a small group of enlightened engineers were founding an organization called IEEE 802 (IEEE stands for Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers – 802 was an arbitrarily chosen number). Over the last 40 years it is not hard to reasonably assert that IEEE 802 has proven to be one of the most significant Standards Development Organizations (SDOs) in history.
Not many SDOs can claim to be the source and guardian of multiple technologies that have become key elements of almost everything we do in the modern world. IEEE 802 has provided a path for a myriad of electronic devices—computers, phones, my bathroom scales—to be connected globally and thus magnify the power of that single computer at my school by many orders of magnitude.
Along the way, IEEE 802 has standardized a wide variety of technologies, always looking to address the changing needs of people and machines. Some of these efforts succeeded for a short period and then were forgotten. Remember token bus (802.4), token ring (802.5) or WiMax (802.16)?
Some of these efforts never really succeeded; I recall DQDB (802.6), do you? And some of the efforts were thwarted by politics such as Mobile Broadband Wireless Access (802.20) and Ultra-Wide Band (802.15.3.a).
However, a few IEEE 802 standardized technologies will forever live in the annals of history:
- IEEE 802.3 (Ethernet) has developed from half-duplex operation with sharing limited by collisions (and a very thick coaxial cable) to full-duplex operation in a collision free environment (and a variety of media types from twisted pair to fibre). The speeds possible with Ethernet have grown from less than 10 Mb/s to 100’s Gb/s. In 2020, Ethernet is the basis of virtually all local area networks around the globe, and a lot of wider area networks too.
- IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi) started by providing 1Mb/s wireless access in 1997; the latest generation, 802.11ax or Wi-Fi 6, provides shared access at multiple Gb/s. Wi-Fi has proven to be a socio-economic phenomenon. An independent report commissioned by the Wi-Fi Alliance in 2018 estimated the global economic impact of Wi-Fi was $2 trillion in 2018. That is not surprising given there are 13 billion Wi-Fi devices in operation today, and 4.2 billion new devices are expected to be sold in 2020.
- IEEE 802.1 is not as well-known as its Ethernet and Wi-Fi stablemates—it doesn’t even have a brand. However, over the years, it has provided the management, bridging and security “glue” that have supported Ethernet’s and Wi-Fi’s place in the lives of billions of people. For example, 802.1X provides the basis of Wi-Fi security.
Personally, I have a soft spot for IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi). I recall reviewing a draft of the standard in the early 1990s, while undertaking my PhD. I concluded at the time that the draft defined a very poor and inefficient mechanism that could not meet the requirements for data, voice and video networking.
I was so wrong!
In fact, IEEE 802 has provided an environment for engineers to continually refine and improve the IEEE 802.11 standard so that Wi-Fi has always enabled anyone, anytime, anyplace to build a Wi-Fi network that exceeded the needs of users at the time. This progression continues with Wi-Fi 6, and with Wi-Fi 7 (802.11be) just around the corner, it will continue into the future.
In March 2020, IEEE 802 had planned a celebration of its success over the last 40 years at its plenary meeting in Atlanta. In addition to some videos (see https://transmitter.ieee.org/802-standards/ and https://standards.ieee.org/featured/802/), they had arranged a “do” at the Atlanta Aquarium and printed special t-shirts. I should note for the low-key engineers developing IEEE 802 standards, special t-shirts are a big deal!
Unfortunately, the emergence of COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the meeting and the postponement of the celebration, while the world deals with this terrible situation. However, as I sit here writing this blog, while working from home, connected to Wi-Fi and an Ethernet backbone network, it is nice to appreciate that IEEE 802 technology will be a key part of dealing with the health crisis and assisting the subsequent economic recovery.
Happy 40th Birthday IEEE 802, and I hope everyone has a chance to celebrate its success in person, sooner rather than later.
Dr Andrew Myles has been involved in IEEE-SA based standards development work since 1988. For the last 20 years, he has mainly focused on the development of IEEE 802.11 (Wi-Fi) as a participant, editor and chair in various sub-groups of IEEE 802. His IEEE-SA standards development work has also led him to become involved in a variety of complementary organizations, including the Wi-Fi Alliance, ISO/IEC JTC1, 3GPP and ETSI. His current technical focus is ensuring that Wi-Fi and 5G share the spectrum in a somewhat fair manner in the unlicensed 5 & 6 GHz bands. Dr Myles is also involved in the governance of the international standards ecosystem as Member-At-Large of the IEEE-SA Board of Governors and a Director (and former Chair) of the Wi-Fi Alliance Board of Directors. His current governance focus in the IEEE-SA is to promote “enhanced openness” for the IEEE-SA standards development process. Dr Myles is an employee of Cisco Systems, where he is considered by many to be a little bit Wi-Fi biased!