No Strings (Wires) Attached: Wireless LANs, Part III

Accidental Brilliance!

As with many inventions, microwave ovens were actually invented by accident. Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, was touring a factory and was standing close to a magnetron, (a device which provided the heart of radar systems at the close of World War II). He noticed that a candy bar in his
pocket began melting as he stood close to the machine, and then called for a bag of popcorn, which began popping within minutes of getting close to the
machine. The reason for including this seemingly irrelevant history lesson?
Simply put, it introduces the subject of the Industrial, Scientific, and Mechanical (ISM) unlicensed radio bands. In 1985, The FCC gave permission for
general use of a group of frequencies without requiring government-issued licenses, which is why it is often referred to an unlicensed spectrum. The
frequencies within this allocated space included 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, and 5.0 GHz, which then spawned an entire range of wireless-enabled devices on the market.  Early cordless phones, for example, usd the 900 MHz range, with newer ones using the 2.4 GHz range, along with our friend, the microwave oven.

The first generation of just about anything, whether hardware, software, cellular phones, always starts out with a very small group of early
adopters. This group tends to love gadgets, are willing to pay a premium, and tolerant of initial “bugginess.” As the technology gains popularity,
costs begin to drop, the rough edges get smoothed out, and the rates of sales and usage starts to grow, and eventually skyrocket. Wireless networking is no
different, as when the original 802.11 devices were released, with only 1-2 Mbps speeds and clunky/proprietary implementations. The “golden
ticket” came with the introduction of 802.11b devices in 1999, which operated in the 2.4 GHz frequency band and speeds of 11 Mbps using a modulation called
Digital Sequence Spread Spectrum, or DSSS. Ironically, 802.11a was released at the same time, which boasted speeds of up to 54 Mbps in the 5.0 GHz range using Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM), but the greater cost and lower adoption made it far less popular. Companies such as Linksys, D-Link, and others on the consumer side and Cisco on the business side flooded the market with affordable 802.11b access points and client adapters and pushed wireless network access into “prime time.” While it was an interesting time for service providers trying to offer subscription-based services, the hardware
side fared pretty well.

Wireless technology is now offered as standard on laptops, cellular phones, printers, and an entire plethora of other devices, making it
certain that it is here to stay.  There are drawbacks to wireless LAN technologies, which is what we will consider next time.

– Joe

2 Responses to “No Strings (Wires) Attached: Wireless LANs, Part III”

  1. Don’t forget the FHSS 802.11b devices… same band but completely incompatible with the DSSS devices…

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