eWEEK at 30: WiFi Fills Insatiable Demand for Fast Wireless Web Links

By Sean Michael Kerner

January 27, 2014

eWEEK 30: When PC Week started publishing 30 years ago, it was a wired world and wireless connectivity was in its early stages. But by 2001, that dream started to become a reality, and now in 2014 it’s the norm.

People were tethered to their computers and the networks that connect them via copper or optical cables for most of computer history.

That situation started to change in the late 1990s with the emergence of the IEEE 802.11 wireless standard that set the stage for the first wave of wireless Internet adoption. The wireless revolution has carried forward to this day, with WiFi now increasingly becoming the dominant form of Internet connectivity.

The first 802.11 wireless standard was defined in 1997, but it wasn’t until 1999 with the emergence of the 802.11b WiFi standard when things really started to get interesting in terms of both enterprise and consumer adoption. The 802.11b standard defined a wireless speed of 11M bps, which provided first-time users with sufficient speed to access email and Websites of that era.

Though the 802.11b standard was first available in 1999, it took a couple of years until eWEEK declared it ready for widespread deployment. In 2001, eWEEK declared that 802.11b wireless LANs had finally reached a point where we could safely say, “Deploy them.”

As time would tell, that first iteration of 802.11b was not quite ready for the broad deployment that exists for wireless technologies today. One of the first big challenges faced by 802.11b and the dream of pervasive wireless connectivity was security.

Wired Equivalency Protocol (WEP) was the initial de facto standard for wireless security and was proven to be insecure in 2001.

eWEEK Labs believes current WEP offerings are adequate for securing data at smaller sites and home offices, with periodic WEP key changes,” eWEEK Labs wrote in March 2001. “However, large enterprises with vital wireless data to safeguard should look to encryption alternatives now available.”

WEP was ultimately and definitively proven to be insecure and in 2014 is no longer recommended for use as a security mechanism for WiFi. The WiFi Protected Access (WPA) security standard and its successor WPA2 were hailed by eWEEK and others in the industry by 2003 as being the savior for WiFi security, and it’s a technology that largely kept WiFi secure for more than a decade.

“The bottom line is that WPA will be a blessing for sites beleaguered by WEP vulnerability problems, although WPAs user authentication management features should have been in WEP in the first place,” eWEEK wrote in 2003. “In addition, WPA’s enhanced encryption capabilities mean there will be network throughput implications if WPA is used in legacy WiFi products.”

Just as wired Ethernet got faster from its initial deployments, so too has WiFi. The 802.11b WiFi standard first gave both consumers and enterprises a taste of wireless networking freedom, at a leisurely speed of 11M bps, but that wasn’t considered sufficient for very long.

Even while 802.11b’s merits and its rapid adoption were being reported by eWEEK, efforts were already under way to make WiFi faster. In 2002, the early promise of 802.11a was made apparent, with speeds up to five times faster than 802.11b. For most consumers and enterprises though, it was 802.11g that was the preferred successor to 802.11b. Both 802.11a and 802.11g offered the promise of up to 54M bps with 802.11a working in the 5GHz spectrum and 802.11g working in the 2.4GHz spectrum.

“In 2002, security continued to be the most talked about issue on the business side, while the Achilles heel of the home market remained multimedia support,” eWEEK reported. “In the year ahead, the continued growth and evolution of dual-mode 2.4/5GHz capable equipment, Intel’s ability to push out its Centrino mobile technology, the shift toward 802.11g as the preferred 2.4GHz WLAN technology, and the advent of new enterprise infrastructure technology, will all shape the development of this market.”

The next big jump for WiFi after 802.11a and 802.11g was the 802.11n standard, though its adoption and rollout were not entirely seamless. In 2005, eWEEK reported, that “the forthcoming 802.11n wireless standard and the rash of new products that manufacturers say use 802.11n technology are sowing confusion among many IT professionals.”

In a rush to instantly fill consumer and enterprise demand for high-speed wireless connectivity, wireless product vendors released all manner of pre-standard implementations. Standards efforts were also fractured with multiple groups pursuing different approaches.

By August 2005, the rival proposals for 802.11n joined together. In January 2006, eWEEK reported on the release of the first draft of the 802.11n standard. The initial goal of 802.11n was to provide wireless connectivity of 100M bps or more; the final amendment to 802.11n published in 2009 raised the speed to 600M bps.

Today, Cisco’s Chris Spain, vice president of product management for enterprise networking, sees 802.11n as being the most widely deployed and used WiFi specification.

“Each subsequent generation of WiFi technology has been adopted faster than its predecessor— largely due to the increase in mobile device use,” Spain said. “Additionally, the tasks previously performed over a wired connection can now be performed over wireless and on mobile devices.”

The availability of WiFi, in turn, has fueled the capabilities and growth in the use of mobile devices. Spain noted that the proliferation of mobile devices has been one of the main drivers contributing to WiFi growth.

“Another key growth factor is the productivity gained from being able to work or access wireless from anywhere, any time,” Spain said.

One of the key organizations that helped push WiFi adoption forward since 1999 has been the Wi-Fi Alliance.

In a 2003 interview with eWEEK, Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance at the time, emphasized that the core mission of the Wi-Fi Alliance is to certify the interoperability of products based on the IEEE 802.11 standards. It’s a mission that the WiFi Alliance still performs in 2014.

“Users’ appetite for connectivity, paired with the explosion in mobile and portable gadgets, has propelled WiFi into its current position as must-have technology for everything, from notebooks and phones to TVs and tablets,” Kelly Davis-Felner, vice president of marketing at the Wi-Fi Alliance, told eWEEK.

Davis-Felner noted that in addition to interoperability and certification efforts, backward compatibility is a key goal for the Wi-Fi Alliance and for WiFi’s growth.

“We have had a longstanding commitment to never leaving users behind. A device that is WiFi-certified today can connect to one we certified back in 2000 when our program began, even though the technology has made quantum leaps in performance,” Davis-Felner, said.

The latest generation of WiFi is arriving now with the 802.11ac specification, which was amended at the beginning of 2014 to deliver up to 7G bps of wireless bandwidth.

Delivering the fastest possible speed while securing data transmissions was the core challenge during the first 14 years of WiFi evolution. However, new challenges are emerging as WiFi continues to mature.

“As more and more devices leverage WiFi as the primary mode of connectivity, and the apps running over the WiFi become more demanding and bandwidth-hungry, two challenges exist,” Spain said. “The first is owning the rights to the radio frequency environment, and the second is having the ability to support many clients with a single access point and with fast speeds.”

From the Wi-Fi Alliance’s perspective, the biggest challenge for WiFi has been about “keeping it simple” while still pushing the technology forward.

“WiFi is capable of so many exciting things today—both from a performance standpoint and an applications standpoint—but none of this matters if we fail to deliver on the user experience,” Davis-Felner said.

The user experience is one that is continually being addressed and advanced as WiFi’s pervasiveness across all types of technologies grows. While it wasn’t until 2001, when eWEEK first declared 802.11b wireless technology ready to deploy, in 2014, WiFi is a mature technology that is everywhere.

“There is a massive installed base; our attach rate is very high across a broad range of devices; and a very significant proportion of the world’s data traffic travels over WiFi networks in homes, enterprises and public places,” Davis-Felner said. “That said, we still have a very exciting future that will be marked by continued innovation and proliferation into new market segments such as the Internet of things and automotive.

“Wi-Fi Alliance currently has more active work areas than ever before in our history. We are just getting started,” Davis-Felner continued.