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Cables to wireless: The evolution of home networks

The leap from cables to wireless technology has given our lives and lifestyles a degree of mobility that didn’t exist not that long ago.

These days, you only have to walk into your home or office, or even into certain public spaces, and your devices can connect instantly to the wider world through the internet. No need to fumble around in the settings, call into a modem, or stand a few feet away from a modem with your device plugged in.

But that was not always the case. In fact, only a generation ago, the ability to connect your device through wi-fi was not even a consideration.

A very quick history of connected devices

Baron Schilling of Russia was possibly the first person to connect two devices electronically, way back in 1832. He invented the electromagnetic telegraph, but his name has been long overshadowed by the work of Samuel Morse in 1844, who took the concept public – no doubt you’ve heard of Morse Code?

Later, some of the first understandings of what would come to be known as wi-fi were vocalised by famed inventor Nikola Tesla in 1926. His vision was extraordinary, stating; "When wireless is perfectly applied, the whole Earth will be converted into a huge brain… and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple... A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket."

As far back as 1974, the concept of TCP/IP was formalised, which gives devices a communication channel over the internet, and in 1984 the DNS (Domain Name Server) gave devices a name that could be “called.”

By 1989, around the time the internet arrived in Australia, we knew we could connect devices to each other; it was the ‘how’ that was the test.

How devices used to connect

As recently as the mid-1990s, connecting devices to each other and the internet was so complicated and challenging, it spawned a profession: Information Technology or IT.

Cabling was the first half of the mission. With no wi-fi, for one device to be connected to another it had to be done physically. Every device connected to the internet or to each other did so through cabling.

As a result, places with multiple connected devices often became filled with cabling. In businesses, this could become extreme, with cabling as thick as an arm running down aisles and under desks.

And since early modems could generally only accept two cables at best, running multiple connected devices at the same time created further logistical challenges.

There weren’t a lot of devices outside of computers that could connect before wi-fi; there were certainly no smartphones or tablets. (Although a man by the name of John Romkey did manage to connect a toaster to the internet in 1990.)

You could, however, create a local area network (LAN) by using Ethernet cables to connect two or more computers together. The principle was the same as connecting a device to the internet, although instead of sending data down a phone line to a remote device, it was sending it directly to one within reach of your cable.

For many of those who caught the multiplayer gaming bug, LAN parties became an almost necessary familiarity. This usually involved playing games in someone’s home, with multiple PCs, each brought by a guest, positioned on every conceivable flat space – cables going out windows, over balconies, up staircases… often whatever it took.

One, connected to the other, connected to the other – a long chain of machines. Or, later, all those PCs could be connected to a central switch, through which they could all communicate.

Beyond the physical logistics of cabling, was getting one device to actually recognise that it was connected to another.

The ease of connecting via today’s wi-fi is user-friendly and usually automated, but right up into the early 2000s, professionals would need to set up most internet and device connections manually.

It was certainly no ‘plug and play’ scenario. It often required years of experience to deal with the complicated terminology, MSDOS command coding, fiddling around with computer and modem settings, and simple trial and error required.

The origins of wi-fi

The origins of wi-fi can be traced back to 1985, when the U.S. Federal Communication Commission released their bands of radio signal for use as wireless communication. They were 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz.

In order to regulate this, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) was brought on board. They had formed in February 1980 to provide an overarching perspective on internet technology under what they called Project 802 (after the date of the organisation’s formation). Under Project 802, a number of committees were formed. The wireless committee would become the 11th committee.

This is where ‘802.11’, the name of the standard for wireless technology, comes from.

It wouldn’t be until 1997, however, when the first commercial devices would begin to appear that used the 802.11 standard.

At the time, the speed at which it could transmit was very slow by comparison to today’s standards, tapping out at around 2Mbps. However, in 1999, improved standards 802.11a (using the super high frequency 5GHz radio band) and 802.11b (using the frequency 2.4GHz range) launched.

It was at this point we started to see more devices incorporating transmitters. The revolution had started. In the near two decades since, wi-fi has continued to evolve, with 802.11g, 802.11n and the latest 802.11ac standards emerging.

By 2021, not even a quarter of a century on from the very first commercial wi-fi, the average Australian home has been predicted to have over 30 connected devices.

The Internet of Things is exploding. And you will not have to drill a hole through your floorboards to enable a single device!

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