No one can argue that the development of the internet was a revolutionary moment in the world of communication technologies across the globe. Nonetheless, I would say that WiFi has been and continues to be as crucial to the world of communication and information as the first emergence of the public internet.
To speak about the modern origins of WiFi, one must consider the IEEE 802.11 protocol. The ancestor of that particular protocol can be placed back in 1971 when the University of Hawaii developed the ALOHAnet. The ALOHAnet became the first public display of a wireless packet data network. It wasn’t until 1997 when the first iteration of the 802.11 protocol was made public. And it wasn’t until 1999 when the trademark name of WiFi was created by the newly formed Wi-Fi Alliance. At the time of the first WiFi products in 1999, the technology was capable of, theoretical, connection speeds of at most 11 Mbits/s. Compared to today’s theoretical top speed of around 1,300 Mbps and anyone can see how far the technology has come in the last two decades.
But what exactly does WiFi enable us to do? In simple terms, WiFi allows two connected devices to send data over the “air,” or radio wireless local area networking. It can be accessed from most modern technological devices: video game consoles, computers, smartphones, cars, or anything else with internet access. In today’s world, we use it for anything from streaming movies, checking email, and even to purchase items from stores thirty seconds before we arrive at the said store.
The question of the technology still being revolutionary is an interesting one. If you take WiFi to mean the transfer of data wirelessly, then yes I do believe it is still revolutionary. Take, for instance, Mobile HotSpot devices, or WiFi Eggs as they are called in South Korea. These are portable devices that allow a user to connect, usually, multiple devices to WiFi wherever they are. No longer are we limited to knowing the password to a coffee shops WiFi, or being in a place with free WiFi connects. The connection can be with us at all times. The way these Mobile HotSpot devices works varies from place to place and price varies steeply. While WiFi Eggs run on the cheaper side in South Korea, some coming in at only $5.00 a day. Other areas such as America the prices can run much higher.
The permeance of WiFi in our everyday lives has led to important factors that change the way we see the world around us. First, it allows constant communication and often for free. Second, information from around the globe is always at our fingertips, literally. While walking on the street, you can hear someone discussing a car accident that happened near the part of the city you live in. You can immediately check the news using the WiFi you are connected to at a nearby coffee shop and see that there was an accident. You can now plan another route home.
Besides the simple life changes, it has also brought more potential to all people, but especially minority groups to be more active participants in their community. It has allowed movements to exist across space and time. It has informed the world of terrible acts and of hopeful messages. And it has done all of this without being tethered down by a cable. It’s true that the internet was a giant leap forward for the communications world, but I would argue that WiFi made it even easier to connect with the world around us and learn from people we would never know otherwise.
The real importance of WiFi and especially personal mobile WiFi comes from the user’s ability to be a creator and a conduit of information at all times. In today’s world, it is more important than ever to be informed and come to our own conclusions using as many sources as possible. WiFi enabled us never to be lost from the larger world around us. You may not be able to tie any revolution recently to WiFi individually, but it always plays a part in the gathering of people and the exchange of ideas. The logical next step in WiFi technology would be wearable WiFi networks.
Another logical step to WiFi is the emergence of the Internet of Things. With the Internet of Things not only are user devices connected wirelessly to each other, but objects and everyday things are connected to the network as well. This could possibly lead to smarter interactivity and navigability in certain situations. Amazon Go is an excellent example of the Internet of Things utilizing the information provided across wireless networks to make life easier for people. Is it a revolutionary event? Perhaps not now, but one day it could be. It reminds us of the importance of the original WiFi network, the accessibility of information without physical limitations.
After that, if you consider Moore’s Law, the WiFi network will become smaller and smaller; and may just become a part of us. Your stance on that may vary, as some people enjoy the idea of constant connection while others loathe it. I for one believe knowledge is power. And that the concept of information being accessible by everyone, everywhere, without physical tether; is an admirable goal.