20 Years of Wireless with the Wi-Fi Alliance


June 4, 2019 - 3 Comments

In 1999, the idea of connecting to a network wirelessly was mostly a dream. The only device one might want to connect was a laptop, and they were generally expensive and often restricted to the executive suite in larger enterprises. But 1999 was also the year that the IEEE 802.11 Working Group approved the IEEE 802.11b standard, the technological base of Wi-Fi.

However, the mere existence of a standard written by a bunch of smart engineers is rarely sufficient to ignite a revolution. Wireless technology needed a savvy champion, an industry organization to market the technology to the world and ensure it really works in the hands of users. Aironet (acquired by Cisco in 1999) was one of six companies to recognise this need and co-founded the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA), also in 1999.

The WECA took on two vital tasks immediately: to ensure the technology really worked in a multi-vendor environment, and to find a better name, one that would resonate around the world. It succeeded in both.

In 2000, WECA changed the name of its technology from Wireless Ethernet to Wi-Fi. Today, the Wi-Fi label is recognized across the globe and Wi-Fi is so valued that, according to at least one survey, people would rather give up beer or their morning coffee than their Wi-Fi.

Technical diligence

In 2000, the newly renamed Wi-Fi Alliance issued its first interoperability certification for an IEEE 802.11b product, operating at 11Mb/s. This certification was the first of over 45,000 product certifications over the next twenty years. As Wi-Fi technology has expanded, Wi-Fi Alliance certifications have kept users confident that their devices will work with products from other vendors. In 2019, users can be sure of interoperable, reliable and secure Wi-Fi access using the latest IEEE 802.11ax standard (now branded Wi-Fi 6) at rates of up to 5 Gb/s.

In the early years of the Wi-Fi Alliance, it was not always clear that Wi-Fi was going to become the dominant wireless access technology. It certainly was not pervasive. I recall IEEE 802.11 Working Group meetings in 2001, where most engineers designing standards for the next generation of Wi-Fi did not even have Wi-Fi access on their laptops; during Working Group meetings we often had to borrow Wi-Fi cards from a big box at the front of the room.

Today, the idea of a laptop not having perfectly-working Wi-Fi connectivity built-in is alien. Every laptop has Wi-Fi, as does just about any device that generates or uses data. Over 30 billion devices have been made with Wi-Fi, from security cameras in homes to badge readers in enterprises to entertainment systems in cars, industrial sensors, and, of course, mobile phones. There are so many devices using Wi-Fi that by 2022, Cisco’s Visual Networking Index forecasts more than half of all global IP traffic will access the network using Wi-Fi. Unfortunately, this traffic includes my Wi-Fi enabled bathroom scale, telling the cloud each morning that I really should do more exercise.

Challenges along the way

Wi-Fi is not perfect and never will be, but the Wi-Fi Alliance has provided a forum for ongoing development and improvement. For example, a flaw in Wi-Fi security was revealed in 2001 in the form of the WEP Debacle, in which it was shown WEP actually provided very poor security. It was almost a death sentence, because Wi-Fi without security is close to useless. Fortunately, the whole Wi-Fi ecosystem, led by the Wi-Fi Alliance, quickly pulled together and defined WPA (as a temporary solution) and then WPA2 (as a solution that has lasted more than 15 years) to ensure Wi-Fi had appropriate security to meet users’ needs. Of course, you can never take your eye off the ball with security. The Wi-Fi Alliance has continued to promote improvement, most recently with the release of WPA3 (with significant leadership from my Cisco colleague, Stephen Orr).

The Wi-Fi Alliance does not always get it right in its certification programs either, but every experience improves the process, and some “failures” hold the keys to future success. The Wi-Fi Direct certification for peer-to-peer communications was technically successful, in terms of the number of certifications, but the technology didn’t see widespread use. The Wi-Fi Alliance has not given up on peer-to-peer communications, though. Instead, it has learned from the experience;  there are great hopes that the recently introduced Wi-Fi Aware certification will better meet user’s needs.

The WiGig program for 60GHz access is another example where the Wi-Fi Alliance continues to persevere. This activity started in the Wi-Fi Alliance back in 2010. WiGig is still not yet successful, but it represents a significant opportunity for new spectrum and new use cases. The Wi-Fi Alliance’s ongoing work and perseverance means it is an opportunity that still has an excellent chance of being fulfilled in the near future.

Despite the Wi-Fi Alliance’s “learning experiences” over the years, the key point is that Wi-Fi has been successful because it has always fulfilled a promise to enable anyone, anytime, anyplace to construct a cost effective solution to solve real user’s problems. And the problems Wi-Fi solves are evolving. In 2000, the problem was connecting a laptop. Today, it is connecting anything to everything in homes, enterprises, factories, transport and public spaces.

The key to fulfilling this promise has been the Wi-Fi Alliance members’ cooperation across the Wi-Fi ecosystem. The Alliance is a forum for making sense of the alphabet soup of standards from the IEEE 802.11 Working Group, and for developing additional specifications as necessary. It’s also the primary forum for bringing vendors together to ensure interoperability of basic Wi-Fi technology as it continues to develop.

Proud to lend a hand

Cisco is proud to have played a role in the Wi-Fi Alliance since 1999. The company has been a driving force in the Wi-Fi Alliance from the very beginning, as a Sponsor member influencing its strategic direction and as a participant in Task Groups and Interoperability Test Beds. The Wi-Fi Alliance has a provided a basic interoperable Wi-Fi platform for Cisco to provide innovative features that meet the particular needs of our customers; features including Cisco Compatible eXtensions (CCX), controllers with coordinated Access Points, Cisco CleanAir® interference detection and mitigation, location based solutions such as Cisco DNA Spaces, Application Visibility & Control, Hyperlocation, Flexible Radio Assignment (FRA) of dual 5 GHz radios, Software Defined Access, and Intelligent Capture and real-time telemetry. In many cases, Cisco has contributed our proven features back into the Wi-Fi ecosystem, ultimately with certification by the Wi-Fi Alliance.

After twenty years, the global economic value of Wi-Fi is almost $2 trillion per annum (as of 2018). However, it is not the only globally-used wireless data network. Many claim that cellular data, in particular 5G, will take over from Wi-Fi in several key market segments. But Cisco don’t see this as a game with only one winner.

Cisco project that both Wi-Fi and 5G will succeed, and in fact strengthen each other’s success. Wi-Fi will continue to grow to meet the needs of the local area (in unlicensed spectrum), and 5G will meet the needs of outdoor, high speed needs (mostly in licensed spectrum). They will be better together – especially if users can move between the systems smoothly.

To help bring that vision to life, Cisco recently introduced OpenRoaming, building on the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Passpoint certification, which will allow users easy and secure access to Wi-Fi networks globally via a cloud-based federation of access networks and identity providers – including mobile carriers.

I am proud to have been personally involved with the Wi-Fi Alliance since 2003, most of that time on the Board of Directors, including as Chair of the Board from 2006 to 2011. I participated in its 10 year and 15 year anniversary celebrations, and now its 20 year anniversary. I look forward to watching Wi-Fi continue grow and develop in the future under the guidance of the Wi-Fi Alliance.



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3 Comments

  1. Excellent article covering the evolution of Wi-Fi and how Cisco has lead the field and continues to do so with our new Catalyst wireless portfolio!

    Thank you for your leadership and contributions with the WFA and within Cisco, very inspirational.

    Look forward to future insights from you, Andrew!

  2. Andrew, thank you for your leadership throughout the lifetime of Wi-Fi. The WFA has been a truly necessary part of making the 802.11 technology the success it has become.

  3. It's really amazing to see how far we've come over 20 years of Wi-Fi, Andrew.

    With all of the inevitable evolution, it's still the enabler of magical connections.