Extreme Networks’ David Coleman on World Wi-Fi Day 2024

Extreme Networks’ David Coleman
David Coleman, Director of Wireless Networking at the Office of CTO at Extreme Networks, celebrates World Wi-Fi Day 2024

Today is World Wi-Fi Day 2024, a day to celebrate what Wi-Fi has achieved, while also highlighting the digital divide. 4bn people in the world live with no internet access, which provides those in developing countries with the opportunity to increase their economic growth, improve their social mobility and computer literacy, as well as enrich their education prospects.

Here, we learn more from David Coleman, Director of Wireless Networking at the Office of CTO at Extreme Networks.

Can you tell us about the early days of Wi-Fi? What were some of the first challenges of getting wireless internet off the ground?

The early days of Wi-Fi, back in the late 1990s, were a time of exciting possibilities and significant hurdles - it’s hard to believe that Internet access was once confined to clunky desktops. However, getting wireless internet off the ground wasn't easy and challenges included limited range, slow speeds and a lack of standardisation, making it difficult for devices to communicate seamlessly. Security protocols in the early days were also less robust than what we have today - these raised concerns about data privacy and potential vulnerabilities on the nascent wireless network.

Despite these challenges, the early developers of Wi-Fi persevered. They experimented with different technologies, tackled technical limitations and laid the foundation for the robust and ubiquitous Wi-Fi we enjoy today. The development of the IEEE 802.11 standard, which we'll discuss next, was a pivotal step in overcoming these hurdles and paving the way for the Wi-Fi revolution.

What role did the IEEE 802.11 standard play in Wi-Fi's development, and how did its early iterations (a/b/g) lay the groundwork for the future?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) began discussions on standardising wireless local area network (WLAN) technologies in 1991. In 1997, the IEEE ratified the original 802.11 standard, which serves as the foundation of the Wi-Fi technology we use today. The rise of Wi-Fi wouldn't have been possible without the IEEE 802.11 standard. Think of it as a universal language for Wi-Fi devices. Before its creation, devices from different manufacturers couldn't communicate, hindering any widespread adoption. The goal of the IEEE 802.11 standard was to establish guidelines for engineers to enable seamless connectivity of laptops, printers, and other gadgets to wireless networks.

Early versions of the standard, like 802.11a/b/g, weren't perfect. They offered a range of speeds and had limitations, but they were crucial first steps. These early iterations proved the concept of reliable wireless networking, paved the way for faster and more robust future standards, and most importantly, made Wi-Fi accessible to a wider audience. The IEEE 802.11 standard, in essence, provided the foundation and initial push that launched Wi-Fi into the essential technology it is today.

However, standards are merely guidelines and do not necessarily ensure interoperability between manufacturers. This is where the Wi-Fi Alliance, a global non-profit industry association of more than 600 member companies, comes in. The Wi-Fi Alliance's main task is to ensure the interoperability of Wi-Fi products through certification testing. They also market the Wi-Fi brand and raise consumer awareness of new 802.11 technologies. During the early days of the 802.11 standard, the Wi-Fi Alliance defined some of the ambiguous requirements and provided criteria to ensure compatibility between different vendors. This practice continues today, simplifying the complexity of the standards and maintaining interoperability.

Steve Jobs' iBook demo is often credited with boosting Wi-Fi adoption. How did this moment, and others like the rise of home Wi-Fi routers, propel Wi-Fi into the mainstream?

In 1999, the demonstration of the iBook, Apple's revolutionary wireless laptop, sent shockwaves through the tech world. This seemingly simple act of accessing the Internet wirelessly showcased the immense potential of Wi-Fi, symbolising the cutting of the Ethernet cord. It captured the public’s imagination for mobility and sparked a growing demand for wireless connectivity in homes and offices.

This demand, coupled with the rise of affordable home Wi-Fi routers, propelled Wi-Fi from a niche technology to a mainstream necessity. Home users no longer needed complex setups to connect their devices, making Wi-Fi a more accessible and attractive option for everyone. The iBook demo, along with the increasing availability of home routers, created a domino effect that transformed Wi-Fi into the ubiquitous technology it is today.

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When did Wi-Fi become a mainstay in businesses and how did it integrate with existing IT infrastructure?

Consumerisation of IT describes the trend where technology, originally from the consumer market, permeates into business and government environments. A prime example is the widespread adoption of Wi-Fi. In the early 2000s, businesses were hesitant to embrace wireless networks due to security concerns, such as weak encryption and lack of secure authentication. As mentioned earlier, consumers quickly adopted Wi-Fi at home, relishing the freedom of wireless connectivity with their laptops.

As employees enjoyed the benefits of Wi-Fi at home, they started insisting on its availability at work, leading to the installation of rogue access points (APs). These unauthorised devices posed security risks, compelling businesses to address Wi-Fi security thoroughly. Over time, improved security protocols like WPA2 and WPA3, developed by the IEEE and Wi-Fi Alliance, enabled secure enterprise Wi-Fi deployment. As a result, consumer demand drove the integration of Wi-Fi into the enterprise.

The introduction of personal mobile Wi-Fi devices, such as smartphones and tablets, sparked a new wave of Wi-Fi consumerisation in IT. Devices like the Apple iPhone (2007), iPad (2010), and HTC's first Android smartphone (2008) were initially designed for personal use, but employees soon sought to use them on company networks. As enterprise mobile applications emerged, businesses deployed these devices to capitalise on their mobility, leading to a surge in mobile device connections on corporate wireless networks, surpassing laptops as the primary means of Wi-Fi access.

Organisations swiftly adapted by deploying corporate mobile devices equipped with custom software and implementing BYOD policies to manage personal device usage. Employees desired the convenience of connecting their personal mobile devices to corporate networks, prompting companies to accommodate this demand. Consequently, consumers played a pivotal role in driving broader Wi-Fi adoption within enterprises, illustrating the powerful influence of personal technology in business environments.

Wi-Fi has been instrumental in the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), starting with home devices such as smart thermostats, doorbells, and security cameras. These devices use Wi-Fi for real-time monitoring, automation and improved control, underscoring the power of interconnected technologies. Businesses soon embraced Wi-Fi-connected IoT devices for industrial sensors, medical equipment, and other applications, facilitating real-time monitoring and efficiency across various industries.

Over time, enterprises, educational institutions, and organisations quickly recognised the substantial benefits of Wi-Fi, including efficiency, mobility and productivity. The advent of the 802.11n standard in 2009, featuring higher data rates and improved range, marked a significant milestone. This new standard provided reliable wireless connections, enabling seamless communication and resource access from anywhere within the network. This flexibility fostered dynamic, collaborative workspaces and reduced reliance on wired connections. Wi-Fi-enabled environments boosted productivity, allowing quick task adaptation and improved collaboration. In education, Wi-Fi facilitated interactive learning and easy access to digital resources, enriching the educational experience. Across various sectors, Wi-Fi adoption has fundamentally transformed operations, proving vital for modern productivity and business success.

Wi-Fi 6E utilises the 6 GHz spectrum. How does this technology unlock the potential for high-performance and low-latency connections?

Think of the Wi-Fi spectrum as a highway for data to travel. Traditional Wi-Fi operates in the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. These bands are like congested highways during rush hour – data gets backed up, leading to slow speeds and frustrating delays. Wi-Fi 6E breaks new ground by utilising the uncongested 6 GHz spectrum for the very first time. Opening up the 6 GHz frequency band for Wi-Fi devices has unlocked a potential 1200 MHz of spectrum, twice the capacity of the 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands combined. It has paved the way for a new superhighway capable of supporting faster speeds and greater capacity. This expanded range translates to several significant advantages.

Firstly, the 6 GHz band offers increased capacity. Think of it as having more channels available on the spectrum, allowing for a greater number of devices to connect simultaneously without experiencing slowdowns. No more waiting for downloads to finish or video calls to buffer – Wi-Fi 6E provides a smoother experience for everyone connected.

Secondly, the 6 GHz band suffers from less interference. The 2.4 GHz band is often cluttered with signals from other devices like Bluetooth, causing disruptions to your Wi-Fi signal. The cleaner 6 GHz band offers a clearer and more reliable path for data flow. Imagine a clear, dedicated lane for your data to travel on, free from outside interruptions.

Finally, the wider channels within the 6 GHz band allow for more efficient data transmission, further boosting overall speed and performance. With Wi-Fi 6E, downloading large files, streaming high-definition videos, and participating in online activity becomes noticeably faster and smoother.

What advancements can we expect in Wi-Fi speed, reliability and security to meet the demands of an increasingly connected world?

You may have heard that there is a new generation of Wi-Fi. Building upon its predecessor Wi-Fi 6E, the Wi-Fi 7 standard is designed to meet the growing demands of modern connectivity and mobility. From an enterprise perspective, this means IT teams will be empowered to support an increased number of devices, users and bandwidth-intensive applications, while also catering to low-latency apps. We are now entering the era of 6 GHz connectivity. Think of Wi-Fi 6E as the foundational generation offering 6 GHz connectivity, while Wi-Fi 7 represents the latest generation that will build upon the 6 GHz spectrum in addition to leveraging legacy bands.

Wi-Fi 7 is the fastest generation of Wi-Fi to date, boasting extremely high theoretical speeds. However, it's important to temper expectations regarding the advertised data rates, as real-world performance often lags behind due to the inherent limitations of radio transmissions. Nonetheless, Wi-Fi 7’s advanced technology can achieve impressive data rates, significantly enhancing user performance. Additionally, Wi-Fi 7 introduces more robust modulation and ultra-wide channels that can handle larger volumes of data. These capabilities are particularly exciting for personal home use, where users can fully benefit from the enhanced performance.

The most exciting enterprise feature of Wi-Fi 7 is Multi-Link Operation (MLO), which uses multiple bands and channels simultaneously to deliver faster and more reliable connections. This means devices can switch between different channels to maintain the best possible connection, reducing delays and improving overall performance. This seamless connectivity greatly improves the user experience, especially for demanding applications, such as high-definition video streaming and virtual reality. For businesses, MLO supports critical operations by reducing latency and increasing throughput, making it a valuable upgrade for enterprise environments.

Wi-Fi has become a fundamental part of our daily lives, evolving into the most prevalent wireless technology over the last 25 years. It has revolutionised communication by providing instant access to information and facilitating social interactions that transcend geographic boundaries. Moreover, Wi-Fi has influenced cultural production and consumption, fuelling the expansion of streaming services, digital art and virtual experiences. Beyond being a mere technology, Wi-Fi serves as a vital catalyst of modern life, profoundly influencing how we live, work, learn and connect. Wi-Fi has become more than just a technology – it has become a way of life. 

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