The history of Wi-Fi – 1971 to 2019

While Wi-Fi technology is taken for granted today, it is interesting to note that the 802.11b wireless standard first became available commercially as recently as 1999.

This is universally agreed to be the beginning of what we today know as Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi has since gone through various iterations and improvements, culminating in the availability of the Wi-Fi 6 standard today.

“Wi-Fi networks have transformed the way we live, work, learn and play,” said Garsen Naidoo, Country Manager of Cisco South Africa.

“Whether you use Wi-Fi to connect to social networks, watch videos, play, work, or digitize your business, the new generation of Wi-Fi 6, alongside 5G networks, will open up a whole world of new opportunities.”

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the birth of Wi-Fi, Cisco outlined 20 important dates and facts relating to the evolution of Wi-Fi technology, which we have summarised below.


1970s

  1. 1971: Early beginnings of Wi-Fi:
    • A network system called ALOHAnet is created at the University of Hawaii, which lays the foundation for further development of wireless communication and the later emergence of Wi-Fi networks.

1990s

  1. 1997: 802.11 arrives:
    • The first version of the 802.11 standard is introduced, allowing speeds of up to 2Mbps.
  2. 1999: WECA is born:
    • Half a dozen technology companies, including Aironet, which was later acquired by Cisco, form the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA). In 2002, WECA changed its name to Wi-Fi Alliance.
  3. 1999: 802.11b – first ‘Wi-Fi’ standard:
    • Announcement of the 802.11b standard, the first standard to emerge under the name ‘Wi-Fi’. Superior in speed and usability to 802.11, the release of 802.11b is considered by many to mark the true beginning of Wi-Fi technology.
  4. 1999/2000: First commercial 802.11b devices start to appear:
    • Wi-Fi’ starts to appear in commercial devices, including popular laptops. It starts to gain significant commercial traction.

2000s

  1. 2002: Cisco pushes the industry forward:
    • The Cisco Compatible eXtensions free license program is launched, allowing Wi-Fi products offered by other vendors to work with Cisco wireless networks.
  2. 2004: Wi-Fi reaches for the sky:
    • First commercial flight offering passengers Wi-Fi access.
  3. 2005: Wi-Fi becomes the latest word:
    • “Wi-Fi” is added to the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
  4. 2009: 802.11n revolutionizes the industry:
    • The new 802.11n (Wi-Fi 4) standard is introduced. 802.11n allowed transmission speeds to be increased with MIMO technology, which allowed more antennas to create more data streams. The maximum transfer rate multiplied almost nine times (54 Mbps vs. 450 Mbps).

2010s

  1. 2010: A new wave of Cisco innovations:
    • Cisco CleanAir technology is introduced, allowing automatic identification of interference and directing users to other, less crowded, channels.
  2. 2011: Hotspots are a hot trend:
    • Number of Wi-Fi hotspots exceeds one million globally.
  3. 2012: Wi-Fi in the home:
    • A quarter of all households in the world are connected to Wi-Fi.
  4. 2013: 802.11ac brings even greater speeds:
    • 802.11ac standard is introduced, reaching over 1 Gbps.
  5. 2015: Wi-Fi a part of life:
    • An IDC study finds that Wi-Fi is the second most important thing people do not want to live without. 18% of respondents even ranked it first. Only food with 30% was placed above. For example, sex (10%), television (8%) and alcohol (4%) were behind Wi-Fi.
  6. 2018: Wi-Fi as a major economic driver:
    • Global economic value of Wi-Fi technology reaches $2 trillion.
  7. 2018: 13 billion Wi-Fi devices:
    • Penetration reaches about 13 billion Wi-Fi devices worldwide. This means almost two Wi‑Fi devices per person on the planet.
  8. 2019: Wi-Fi 6 arrives:
    • Wi-Fi 6 is introduced, reaching speeds of up to 5 Gbps. Technology is built on the same foundation as 5G networks, with the two technologies considered complementary.

The future

  1. 2021: Further growth predicted in hotspots:
    • According to Cisco estimates, the number of global hotspots will exceed 500 million by 2021. This will be 500 times more than ten years before.
  2. 2022: Average speeds continue to grow:
    • It is predicted that by this year the average global Wi-Fi connection speed will be 54.2 Mbps, compared to 24.4 Mbps in 2017.
  3. 2022: Wi-Fi will be the driver of the Future Internet:
    • By this point, Wi-Fi will be the dominant source of Internet access. Cisco’s VNI study predicts that up to 59% of Internet traffic will flow through it.

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The history of Wi-Fi – 1971 to 2019