Thursday, May 06, 2010

Wi-Fi: 25 Years

[As I spent a large part of the years 1999-2008 engaged in wireless & Net politics, here's a quick assemblage of links, notes & videos for further reflection. Whilst the technology and regulatory "how" is fascinating, my interest has been in pushing the social "why". | John Wilson, May 2010]

[1] 25 years of Wi-Fi: Empowering the user

May 2010 marks the 25 th anniversary of the American communications regulator the FCC's ruling to allow no-licence access to the radio spectrum for spread-spectrum radio devices for civil and commercial use.

Far from a notable public event at the time, this new regulatory arrangement opened the door for a succession of wireless technology innovations of global impact in subsequent decades: from mobile telecoms (CDMA & 3G cellular systems), to Wi-Fi wireless Internet access (enabling WLANs wireless local area networks) and Bluetooth short range connectivity between wireless devices (creating PANs personal area networks).

Wi-Fi has helped re-shape our communications landscape ecology, and in particular to empower the end-user. The fact that it blends into the background of our everyday lives, is the sign of its success.

[2] Links

Some links to highlight the origins of Wi-Fi, regulatory issues, and current agendas (2010)

[3] The origins of Wi-Fi: Beyond technologism

Regulation, technology and market development

Beyond the prevalent technologistic view in which new technologies are seen to emerge as the inevitable result of pure and rational scientific discovery to simply sweep society before them, there lies a largely invisible human history which is characterised more as a contested process of technology, regulatory, commercial, political and social options and conflicts. And far from being of second order importance, government regulation performs a structural role to enable the emergence of new technologies.

Like the Internet itself the pre-history of Wi-Fi technology and its regulatory enabler lies in the invisible universe of military technologies, first and foremost, alongside the academic research community and government regulatory agencies. There could be no guaranteed path for technology or policy success in such a complex world of interlocking, and often mutually hostile, institutions and actors.

The history of the regulatory opening of the Pandoras Box of unlicensed access to the radio spectrum through spread-spectrum radio technologies, which opened the way for Wi-Fi some fifteen years later, was framed by the 2008 conference The Genesis Of Unlicensed Wireless Policy: How Spread Spectrum Devices Won Access to License-Exempt Bandwidth ( George Mason University School of Law, Arlington, Virginia, USA). The conference brought together key actors in the invisible technology and regulatory drama of spread spectrum digital radio and unlicensed spectrum access. Two contributions are of especial note: the presentation by Michael Marcus (see also Marcus, Early Civil Spread Spectrum History), who drove the FCC rule making to establish licence-exempt access for spread spectrum radio devices (and see 2006 video: Michael Marcus, Spectrum Issues: "classical spectrum management policy is a balance between the haves and have nots") ; and the presentation by Vic Hayes - dubbed "the father of Wi-Fi", who was a co-founder and 10 years Chair of the IEEE 802.11 working group which steered the technical standards for wireless networking that have been branded as Wi-Fi.

[4] The Wi-Fi wireless revolution: The benefits of unlicensed spectrum access

From the year 2000 the availability of mass market Wi-Fi wireless devices - based on the new IEEE 802.11b global technical standard for wireless networking - unleashed the wireless Internet revolution that has brought us ever closer to the ideals of ubiquitous communications and end-user empowerment. The everyday utility of Wi-Fi is highlighted by its being voted the best technological innovation of the decade in one poll in 2008.

The wireless communications revolution has been unprecedented in its rapid evolution as a mass communications medium. The success of technology and market developments in both mobile cellular and Wi-Fi wireless Internet wireless communications has highlighted the efficacy of both licensed and unlicensed approaches to spectrum access, leading to consensus for a mixed approach to spectrum management policy.

Whilst the success of the spectrum licensing and auctions approach has been proven for the initial phase of mobile cellular communications (- although the year 2000 3G auctions scenario proved problematic -) which opened up a whole new commercial market space over the period ca. 1995 - 2000, there has been a complementary emphasis upon the public interest value of the unlicensed approach to Wi-Fi wireless Internet access to engage the digital divide agenda in "remote and rural areas" (where network economics can invariably lead to conditions of "market failure") and developing countries.

In today's world of digital convergence moreover we arrive at the smart phone, bringing together into a single device both Wi-Fi and mobile cellular (see X and X; and X). And indeed Wi-Fi is set to colonize the whole field of consumer electronics, as the world of must-have gadgets now comes with built-in wireless access.

Mobile - With rapid and spectacular success mobile cellular has become an everyday utility, overtaking fixed line telephony use in mature markets (see for eg the USA). Mobile cellular has been the sole preserve of the big industry players, as spectrum licenses are auctioned to the highest bidder.

Wi-Fi - By contrast the low barrier to entry through no-licence spectrum access of Wi-Fi wireless Internet access has led to forms of innovation beyond the traditional telecoms company and its mobileco variant, contributing to the revolution at the edge of the network that empowers the end-user, new business opportunities and local communities.

Digital Divide - In developing countries and emerging markets, new wireless Internet access technologies - both licensed and unlicensed - have the potential for use as a leap-frog technology by-passing the need for traditional fixed line telephony. A 2004 OECD report affirmed the rapid spread of commercial-off-the-shelf Wi-Fi technology and urged spectrum reform to enable licence-exempt access in order to address the digital divide in developing countries: "The rapid adoption of Wi-Fi has pushed prices down and allowed entrepreneurs in developing economies to use off-the-shelf equipment to quickly roll out wireless networks. These new wireless networks usually operate in license-exempt spectrum bands. Policy makers can help spur innovation in these wireless networks by making certain frequency bands license-exempt..." ( Regulatory Reform as a Tool for Bridging the Digital Divide ). See also for example Building Digital Bridges with Emerging Technologies (ITU, 2004), especially the introduction and conclusion; and Isabel Neto, Bjorn Wellenius, Managing the radio spectrum: Framework for reform in developing countries (Policy Research Working Paper4549 | The World Bank, Global Information and Communication Technologies Department, Policy Division | March 2008) (See full view in Google Books here; download free pdf from

Spectrum policy reform: Unlicensed access

By 2004 the international trend in spectrum reform was clear, that the unlicensed approach to spectrum management policy was an efficient driver of technological innovation and market developments beyond the traditional, default policy tool of licensing.

"More and more policy-makers are questioning the utility of licensing and demanding that licences be adapted to achieve policy goals without hindering market development and technological advancement", stated a 2004 report by the International Telecommunication Union, " The allocation of spectrum for licence-exempt use is increasingly viewed as a catalyst for the development of more efficient and cost effective wireless technologies. By late 2004, 55 countries had allocated spectrum for unlicensed use..." (Trends in Telecommunication Reform 2004-5: Licensing in an Era of Convergence, ITU, 2004).

Hence some 20 years after the innovative 1985 FCC ruling to enable unlicensed access to the radio spectrum for spread-spectrum wireless devices for communications use, the rapid global success of Wi-Fi over the period 2000-04 had led to international consensus on the efficacy of the unlicensed spectrum approach. Hence the passage of the unlicensed spectrum access approach "from pariah to paradigm" (see Carter, Unlicensed to Kill, 2009), to become a normative spectrum management policy tool promoting technological innovation, market developments, and social and economic benefits.

[5] A reflection on Wi-Fi

[ The following reflections are by way of personal shorthand for engagement with the wireless & digital divide agendas. Also in [6] below I have managed to archive some Open Spectrum videos - mostly from events that I have organised - showcasing presentations by leading technologists and Open Spectrum advocates. Thanks to the generosity of James, San & dicktonyboy for making the videos possible! ]

Ubiquitous communications, the digital divide, and the end-user

Wi-Fi has helped re-shape our communications landscape ecology, and in particular to empower the end-user. The fact that it blends into the background of our everyday lives, is the sign of its success.


Wi-Fi has made a major contribution to making ubiquitous communications a reality:
  • In 1985 the FCC ruling allowed no-licence access to the radio spectrum for spread-spectrum radio devices for civil and commercial use in the so-called ISM bands ( - 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands) previously earmarked for Industrial, Scientific and Medical use and with no guarantees against interference. Following the formation of industry body the Wi-Fi Alliance (WECA) in 1999, the new "Wi-Fi" wireless Internet access technology (in the first instance, through the IEEE 802.11b standard which appeared on the market in early 2000) experienced phenomenal growth as a mass communications medium once regulatory clearance and global standards allowed end-user devices to be taken to market.
  • In the process the myths of spectrum intereference and of the "tragedy of the commons" were belied by mass adoption, and the fact that the technology was fitter for purpose than anyone had really anticipated.
  • Nowadays Wi-Fi capability is simply assumed as a given for any personal lap-top computer (and now the smart phone); as Wi-Fi is embedded in any new lap-top at effectively zero cost to the end user.


Beyond its initial intention as a means of short-range communications within buildings, Wi-Fi has even helped re-shape our wider social spaces. Wi-Fi was helped to empower whole communities that found themselves on the wrong side of the "digital divide":
  • Wi-Fi was promoted as a community "first mile" (as opposed to what the telco's call the "last mile" of the network) broadband solution in "remote and rural areas", where there was market failure and the telcos claimed that broadband Internet provision was uneconomic.
  • Wireless ISP's and community wireless networks thrived in rural regions that were written-off by the telcos.
  • And the same pattern of telco neglect saw the emergence of municipally supported wireless Internet networks.


Wi-Fi has helped to drive the revolution at the edge of the network, that serves the needs and unleashes the potential of the user:
  • Above all Wi-Fi has helped to empower the end-user through access to the Internet and it's new tools for personal communications, creative expression, productivity & wealth creation.
  • This communications revolution is displacing the traditional telco-centric model of artificial scarcity and pay-per-use,
  • towards a new communications ecology of abundance in which the Internet is evolving towards a free and open access medium, through which new commercial value-added services are accessed.

[6] Video showcase

Open Spectrum & community wireless networks

The following Open Spectrum videos showcase a number of presentations by leading technologists and Open Spectrum advocates, exploring issues of wireless technology, regulation and history, and the prospects of an open future for spectrum.

May 2006 | Michael Marcus | Spectrum Issues

Michael Marcus, former Chief Technologist at the FCC, presentation to The Wireless Event (Olympia, London).

"Some basic laws of spectrum economics, based on my twenty years of experience at the FCC. | Thus classical spectrum management policy is a balance between the haves and have nots. The haves generally control the national regulatory agencies, the Ofcoms of the world. And the have nots don't. And what you see are battles between the haves and have nots. And nobody seems to care about GDP. | (...) Nobody needs spectrum. It's a lie to say "I need spectrum". People need communications capacity, which is a function of both spectrum and technology"

May 2006 | Peter Cochrane | Seamless Freedom: The Wireless Revolution

Former BT Chief Technologist Peter Cochrane's keynote presentation to The Wireless Event (Olympia, London).

"The need for regulation goes from 100% regulated and controlled - otherwise you are going to run into all kinds of interference problems- to an era where 'heh! has the regulator got a job any more?' "

Jan 2004 | Dewayne Hendricks | Towards Open Spectrum: Locating Wireless Technology, Regulation and History

Leading US open spectrum advocate Dewayne Hendricks' keynote presentation to the ABC2 Conference Revolution at the Edge: Broadband Networks and Innovation (Cisco, EMEA Headquarters, Middlesex, England).

"We are undergoing a paradigm shift from the property regimen to the new commons world and beyond (...) in which we may turn the regulatory authority over to the device itself"

May 2002 | Connecting Keokuk | Wireless Broadband Case Study

A video case study of a succesful wireless ISP in rural Iowa, USA. Interlink LC's community approach to broadband Internet provision highlights the use of licence-exempt 802.11 wireless technology as a first mile broadband solution for remote and rural areas.

"If you aint got broadband, then you're just outta luck" (The architect).

March 2001 | Dave Hughes | A wireless vision for Wales

A video documenting John Wilson's March 2001 visit to American grassroots telecoms activist and no-licence wireless pioneer Dave Hughes, Colorado, USA.

Dave Hughes' wireless vision for Wales has a universal currency in its advocacy of no-licence wireless technologies as a "first mile" broadband solution for remote and rural regions, with reference to the community wireless networks model.


The March 2001 video of Dave Hughes' advocacy of no-licence wireless as a first mile broadband solution for community wireless networks in remote and rural areas predates the Wi-Fi explosion:
  • The March 2001 video of Dave Hughes' advocacy of no-licence wireless - and the related video Connecting Keokuk - was used as a lobbying tool to influence government and regulatory policy in the UK: arguing from the regulatory precedent of the USA for the opening up to no-licence (- or "license exempt", in UK discourse) access of the 2.4 GHz band, and subsequently the 5.8 GHz band (- eventually resolved as "light-licensing" in UK discourse) which was designated in explicit public interest terms in the USA as the UNII band - the Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure band (: see here and here). These two videos were also used to promote grassroots community wireless networking in Wales and across the UK.
  • Dave Hughes was also involved in locating the Connecting Keokuk case study, as a means of engaging the wireless policy debate with a successful demonstration project for a community wireless network (which in the case of Interlink's Keokuk network was based upon a public and private partnerships approach to solve the local and regional broadband deficit)
  • The March 2001 video of Dave Hughes' advocacy of no-licence wireless was noted in Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (2002), which has a full chapter covering the wireless activism of Dave Hughes (and Dewayne Hendricks): seeChapter 6, Wireless Quilts, Tonga, Mongolia, the Rez and Wales: The New Electronic Frontiers, pp 144-152 (read chapter overview here). See the Smart Mobs website for ongoing discussion.


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