Today is 802.11 day, August 8th 2001 or 8/02/11. As a friend of mine noted in Google+, Hallmark probably does not make a card for that. In honor of this auspicious day I think now is a great time to reflect on this amazing technology that we use every day and almost take for granted.
This all started when, in 1985, the FCC decided to release several radio bands for unlicensed use. This meant that just about anyone could use these frequencies however they felt like provided they adhered to certain rules such as low power, spread spectrum, and ensuring that the devices were not intentionally jamming or eavesdropping. I refer to this in classes I teach as the FCC sandbox. Then, round about 1997 the IEEE decided to standardize the protocols and RF effects into the 802.11 standard and rapidly followed by the creation of the Wi-Fi alliance creating one the quickest adoption cycles in history. Suddenly our computers were free to communicate without wires. When I read about this I was stunned and had to try it myself. I remember demonstrating this amazing effect using a Lucent WaveLAN Silver card and the initial Apple Airport to several of my decidedly non-technical friends in 1999. They didn’t appear to get it. I was loading webpages on my PowerBook G3 and there was nary a wire in sight and these friends of mine were commenting that this was just another geeky gadgety gimmick of mine that had no practical application for people in the real world.
Later on in my career and while working at AirMagnet I recall presenting the benefits of WLAN technology (802.11g at the time) to a high level executive venture capitalist. I was mentioning how health care organizations, amongst other verticals, were adopting the technology a break neck speed. To this he replied that he hoped he would never have to stay at a hospital where this was true, for how could he trust his life to a technology that worked as badly as it did at his home.
This type of thinking is one of the sad realities of a bottom up adoption process. And the embracing of WLAN technology and 802.11 was decidedly that. Most companies started to implement WLAN technology not as a way to cut costs and deliver an amazing amount of increased mobility to their users but as a way to appease executives who were bringing in Linksys routers from home and plugging them in under their desks. Executives were stating, "well if I can set one of these up at home, how hard can it be?"
This disparity between the attitude of "how hard can it be?" and "I can’t trust your network because mine at home in unreliable" is huge. These arguments leave out a great deal. They ignore the value of WLAN professional planners, surveyors, architects, engineers and integrators. They dismiss the years of research and development companies like Cisco, Aruba, Motorola, Meru, Aerohive, Ruckus and others have invested. They discount the impact of hackers and all the other various security needs. Lastly, they oversimplify issues that, to them, appear trivial and unimportant. This oversimplification is a serious issue today as it lowers the value of the technology and the people that research, build and implement it. WLAN vendors are not helping in this area either by suggesting that prospective customers do not need to know anything about wireless. That the WLAN system will heal itself and defend itself without the customer having to worry about a thing. Since when have networks not needed any protocol expertise in the people who properly design and run them? Does your router fix itself when something goes wrong? This is an issue that we, as an industry need to get past before we can expect to see realistic views of WLAN technology and appreciation of our talent by lay people.
Wireless networks today are invaluable. Without them we would be lost. For example, WLANs are the absolute key to the supply chain. They are the enabling technology for just-in-time delivery and short term warehousing. Additionally. they promote collaboration in the Enterprise and reduce costs through the reduction in cable pulls and per port costs on networking equipment. WLANs allow hospitals to reliably move equipment in and out of operating theatres, patient rooms and clinics. They enable Voice over IP anywhere. WLAN technology is in every smart mobile device made today from Smartphones to refrigerators to automobiles. We’ve come a long way baby, but still have a long way to go.
With the recent release of the 802.11n standard we finally have a technology that supplies the range and speeds that enterprises can use and depend on. And this is just the beginning, 802.11ac, 802.11ad and 802.11ah are coming to go beyond the gigabit realm into mutigigabit speeds. But with these advances in speed and range comes complexity. When these technologies break who will be there to fix it? How will they do so? And who will supply them with the tools they need to get the job done? I think you know who I am thinking of…