In 1985, some path-breaking events took place in the United States. Judge Green passed an anti-trust judgment breaking AT&T (Bell Telephones operating company) into regional telecom service providers called ‘baby bells’ such as Bell South, NYNEX and others. Independently, US telecoms regulator, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened up several bands of wireless spectrum so that it can be used without a government licence. These bands at 900MHz, 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz, were already allocated for non-communications devices—such as microwave ovens —but the ruling enabled communications devices to operate in these bands now called ‘unlicensed wireless’. Going forward on the time journey, IBM TJ Watson Research Centre had a project to come up with a technology whereby computing devices can connect over wireless local area network of sorts just like these connect on wired local area networks based on IEEE 802.3 Ethernet protocol. Old timers in the industry will recall discussions around IBM Token Ring, Ethernet, and Token Bus architectures for wired LANs. The work at IBM TJW and some other places has been the foundation of Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) based on IEEE 802.11 wireless local area networking and Bluetooth standards.
Disruptive nature of Wi-Fi stems from the fact that this technology is not as solid as cellular wireless for reliability, security, etc., and hence was ignored by cellular wireless players until it grew so much that cellular wireless world had to take into consideration Wi-Fi. A staggering 15 billion Wi-Fi devices were shipped last year. Today, there are in excess of 50 million public Wi-Fi hotspots globally. India has very low per capita hotspot. For example, while France has 2 million hotspots for a population of 67 million, India has barely 40000 for 1.3 billion people. I believe that the development and emergence of Wi-Fi is highly disruptive but collaborative at the same time. Restricted transmit power that limits the reach of a WiFi radio and absence of universal coverage like that in a cellular wireless network implies users in a restricted area are able to connect to a Wi-Fi access point. Socially, it kind of creates a local networking community. They all share a common communication vehicle.
While Wi-Fi may be seen as competing with other wireless standards, it complements 3G/4G wireless and will become one in the upcoming 5G standard. Wi-Fi is critical to India because of the lack of spectrum availability coupled with the high demand. As country’s rural landscape readies for Internet, public places and major government offices are Wi-Fi enabled, courts transform to E-courts and manufacturing adopt to Industry 4.0 with IoT, Wi-Fi will play a true ‘joker in the pack’. Wi-Fi is at the very heart of the shared economy. According to a 2016 study at least 1 in 3 home routers is expected to be used as public Wi-Fi hotspots by 2017. Total installed base of such dual-use routers could cross 350 million globally by the end of 2020. Being a driver for collaboration, Wifisation will also introduce new working practices and social norms and different ways of sharing. Remote working while travelling or home working, in-car telematics and wearable devices will become second nature with deep proliferation of Wi-Fi. I wonder if our next generation employees will ever realise as they disconnect their health band, and reach inside their connected fridge for a refreshing drink, that their flexible working and open office lifestyle was only made possible by a networking standard called IEEE 802.11xxx.
The writer is co-founder & president,