WiFi Explained

Within the Electromagnetic Spectrum, there is at one end, short wavelength radiation, termed as Ionising Radiation, such as, Gamma Rays, X-Rays, Ultraviolet Rays, folloed by Visible Radiation, and then there is long wavelength radiation, termed as Non-Ionising Radiation, such as InfraRed and Microwave radiation before getting to that of Radio frequency (RF). Radio Frequency has a frequency range of between 3 kHz and 300 GHz and is widely used as a means of communication. Whilst some forms of shortwave radiation are harmful, RF is safe and enables wireless communication in computers, smartphones, and tablets, as well as for a huge number of Internet of Things (IoT) devices.

Looking at providing a short history of radio waves, these were first identified and studied by the physicist Heinrich Hertz in 1886, with the first practical radio transmitters and receivers being developed around the same time by Guglielmo Marconi, an Italian electrical engineer, who was the first person to prove the feasibility of wireless communication. In 1901, Marconi was first to transmit signals across the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and the United States and during the early years of the 20th Century, improvements were made in the fabrication technology and large-scale circuit integration, with Radio Frequency equipment becoming both smaller and much more reliable. Contributions from other scientists and engineers allowed RF communication to evolve from a way of sending messages to the high-speed analogue data transfer system and in providing the many benefits given to a modern society.

The Wi-Fi system was launched for consumer use back in 1997 and in the same year, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers created the first WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) standard, which is a method of wireless distribution taking place between two or more devices, using high-frequency radio waves, which includes an access point to the Internet, allowing its flexible and continued use whilst remaining within the area of coverage. The standard called IEEE 802.11 provided and supported a band width of 2Mbps, which was at the time, was considered as being too slow for many applications, but since then, the standard has been continuously evolving, with faster speeds, whilst being derivatives of the original standard.

In July 1999, the IEEE 802.11a standard was launched with the same core protocol as the original, but operating at a frequency band of 5 GHz, which had a maximum theoretical data rate of 54 Mbps, and a typical transfer rate of around 25 Mbps. Operating at 5GHz, rather than at 2.4 GHz, it was more costly and difficult to implement, which meant the adoption was less widely deployed than that of the IEEE 802.11b standard which operated at 2.4 GHz to 2.5 GHz band, enabling data transfer rates of 11 Mbps and being the first Wi-Fi standard to be widely adopted. This technology was much easier and cheaper to develop, and it was built into many laptop computers and other form of equipment, thereby sealing its success, and meaning that Wi-Fi took off in a large way.

The IEEE 802.11g standard was launched in 2003, providing high speed wireless data transfer, with it playing a major role in further establishing the future of Wi-Fi as a major wireless standard, and with the lower cost of chips at 2.4GHz, alongside higher speeds, meant that for many years it became the dominant Wi-Fi technology.

In 2009 came the IEEE 802.11n standard, known as being Wi-Fi 4, or the 4th generation of Wi-Fi, and was considered by many to be the first Wi-Fi standard suitable for commercial use. The IEEE standard adopted technologies enabling the provision of high-speed data at 600 Mbps peak for wireless LANs & wireless communications, whilst looking to increase the achievable speeds of Wi-Fi networks beyond that achievable previously, and sought remain ahead of requirements, ensuring that Wi-Fi was able to meet the needs of users for the coming years.

Moving on a few years to 2013 and the IEEE 802.11ac Gigabit standard was launched, known as being Wi-Fi 5, or the 5th generation of Wi-Fi, providing Very High Throughput, (VHT) data transfer speeds of between 1 Gbps and 7 Gbps within the 5 GHz ISM (Industrial, Scientific & Medical) band on wireless LANs. The Wi-Fi Alliance commenced certifying Wave 1 802.11ac electronic devices, manufactured to IEEE 802.11ac Draft 3.0 from the middle of 2013 and then in 2016, it started to certify Wave 2 electronic devices.

Another few years on saw the launch of the IEEE 802.11ax standard, which went live in 2019, thereby replacing the IEEE 802.11ac standard, which is generally known as being Wi-Fi 6, or the 6th generation of Wi-Fi. This standard is sometimes referred to as being 10G Wi-Fi, as the intention was to move away from raw data speed, focusing more on real-world Wi-Fi performance. With the introduction of the Internet-of-Things (IoT) adding more pressure on Wi-Fi networks, it was important that a new standard address the issues of current network capacity and efficiency. Wi-Fi 6 is a dual-band technology working in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies and has a data transfer rate of up to 9.6 Gbps, whilst using less power, and being more reliable in congested environments, whilst also supporting better security.

The question being asked at this point, is around where the technology goes from here.

In answer to that question, the IEEE 802.11be standard Extremely High Throughput (EHT) is expected to be launched sometime during 2024 and will be known as Wi-Fi7, or the 7th generation of Wi-Fi, and is expected to operate within the 2.4GHz, 5 GHz and 6 GHz wavebands, with an increase in the data rate of up to 46.1 Gbps. In addition, Wi-Fi 7 will be optimized for video applications, which will prove valuable in the enterprise space, but also inside homes for use in gaming, streaming and other smart-home devices and services. The IEEE plans to publish the IEEE 802.11be, an amendment to IEEE 802.11 sometime during 2024, with commercial deployment at around the same time. Then, as with Wi-Fi 6, the Alliance will release its Wi-Fi 7 certification program to ensure interoperability and security.

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