The Labyrinth of Wi-Fi, Explained
Some might not realize it, but amidst all the world’s conflicts and irreconcilable differences, we have one thing in common: the need for internet. Homes can’t escape it, businesses embrace it, and each individual with a smartphone can’t live without it. In just a few decades, the magical place that is the internet managed to change the world radically and completely. And how do we access it? Through cables or Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi, explained in layman terms, is the technology that allows us to access the World Wide Web.
This technology lets us carry our devices anywhere near a wireless transmitter, so we can go online without fussing around cables. But wireless internet access isn’t its only advantage. We can control appliances with it; we can use it to print documents on paper from miles away; we can use it to expand its own range via hotspots; we can use it to play media on our TVs, and so much more. But how does it work, and since when did we have this technology?
The History of Wireless Fidelity
Contrary to popular belief, the word wifi did not originally mean wireless fidelity; it had been advertised as such after the term “Wi-Fi” was coined and the logo was made by Interbrand Corporation in 1999, a brand consultancy hired by the Wi-Fi Alliance in their effort to make IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence, the official name of the wireless technology, easier to market.
The word is a play on high fidelity, or hi-fi, which describes high-quality sounds and is used by audiophiles and stereo sound enthusiasts. Before this, the wireless technology’s name was a long string of letters and numbers. Let’s say it again: IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence. That was a mouthful; so how did the first developers end up with it? Well, let’s study some history.
Serious development of wireless packet data networking began at the University of Hawaii, where they developed and produced ALOHAnet in 1971. ALOHAnet, short for Additive Links On-line Hawaii Area, used its own kind of medium access, called ALOHA random access, and experimental ultra high frequency, which would later influence IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence and young cellular networks to develop in this direction, too.
When the use of ALOHAnet became popular, a 1985 US FCC ruling pushed its developers to release the technology’s ISM band so other enthusiasts can develop it without needing a license. ALOHAnet’s ISM band, the portion of the radio spectrum that is reserved internationally for industrial, scientific, and medical uses, didn’t end up becoming IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence, but it did influence how it would later operate.
The next glimpse of wireless fidelity came in 1991, when NCR Corporation and AT&T Corporation patented a cashier system network, called WaveLAN, not to be confused with WLAN, or Wireless Local Area Network. Like IEEE 802.11b, its aim was to become a wireless alternative to Ethernet, but its limitations did not allow it to become anything more than what it was first invented for.
Through the years, numerous electrical and electronics engineers, most luminous of whom is Vic Hayes “The Father of Wi-Fi”, amassed electrical and telecoms patents that weren’t at first related to each other. This was until a common thread was picked up by the IEEE and in 1997, a 2 MB/s link speed was achieved by the first version of the IEEE 802.11 protocol. This was extended to 11 MB/s in 1999. By then, members of the IEEE had created Wi-Fi Alliance, which will prove to be one of the most influential groups in the history of telecommunications.
The Wi-Fi Alliance’s job is simple. It certifies Wi-Fi products with its trademarked logo; inspect any legitimate Wi-Fi gadget and you’ll see the black and white logo on it somewhere. This means the product went through rigorous tests before it was released to the market. But Wi-Fi enabled devices don’t necessarily need certification to operate. The logo is for the benefit of consumers, and it simply means that the device it is stickered or embossed on complies with the standards of the Alliance.
This wireless technology is constantly updated, with developers aiming for instantaneous speeds and innovative applications. How far have they come? Let’s take a look at some Wi-Fi products and see.
Anything equipped with a wireless network interface controller can call itself a Wi-Fi gadget, and that product category obviously includes electronics like routers, smartphones, laptops, and desktops. But do you know that appliances like TVs and washing machines are beginning to include it in some of their high-end models, too? And that’s not all. Children’s products like stuffed animals, baby carriages, and baby monitors are also applying the technology. Here are the things that Wi-Fi allows them to do:
- Connect to the internet. This is the most popular application of this technology. Using routers and hotspots, Wi-Fi enabled devices can connect to the internet wirelessly. This, coupled with the small size of a Wi-Fi receiver, helps touch-screen devices like smartphones and tablets attain smaller and thinner profiles, with the latter product having Wi-Fi only models, proving that sometimes, the only thing a consumer needs from a device is internet access.
- Share internet access. Some devices that aren’t intended for hotspot use, like the previously-mentioned smartphone and tablet, can now act like virtual routers by sharing their mobile data over their Wi-Fi and Bluetooth chips. Originally a restricted feature, hotspot capability has become a standard in these devices.
- Computer-to-computer communication. Called an ad hoc connection, two Wi-Fi devices can connect with each other without the need for an intermediary device. This can be seen in handheld game consoles, where multiplayer gaming modes are established via ad hoc connections. Wi-Fi direct file transfers also fall under this category, with transfer speeds reaching more than 100 MB/s, depending on the hardware. According to speed tests, it is always faster than Bluetooth.
- File Storage. With the use of Network-Attached Storage, or NAS, you can create databases independent from your regular computer, and any Wi-Fi device can access it within transmitter range. This is similar to the ones used in industrial IT systems. In the beginning, early adopters have found NAS systems difficult to build, but consumer interest has grown enough so that manufacturers have started to release easy-to-assemble NAS devices for home use.
- Print wirelessly. Printers are one of the first appliances that first adopted Wi-Fi. Explained by the popularity of laptops, printers that need cables usually hinder the former’s mobility. It can get tiresome to go to the static location of a printer every time a document’s hard copy is needed. This is especially true for people who don’t own desktops and are completely mobile.
- Control Appliances. Other Wi-Fi enabled appliances like washing machines and home security monitors allow for mobile control via smartphones, and TVs have fully embraced it as can be seen by internet-only channels like Netflix, which is a revolution of its own.
Due to the rise of humanity’s reliance on the internet, wireless security has become a large area of concern for everyone. Companies that have completely saturated the internet populace, like search giants, online account managers, computer OSes, and others, often have the ability to store all sorts of passwords, including those for router access, with the expressed approval of users.
Any password storage service is a user prerogative that companies are legally obliged to define in each of their internet product’s Terms of Services to prevent liability and to promote user responsibility. However, consumer security issues lie in the fact that governments can legally force companies to hand over sensitive information like these if they deem there is a need for it.
Of course, it is not known how authorities will handle its access to gigantic amounts of digital information that reach exabytes, where 1 exabyte equals 10006 bytes, but the issue is the fuel of security debates nonetheless. As gathered from online surveys and interviews, a majority of internet users are critical of any government’s power over information databases, but the minority see growing amounts of cybercrime as a valid excuse to allow such last-resort actions.
This polarizing issue has brought to light the importance of strong passwords not just for online accounts but also for wireless router access. Blackhat hackers can crack weak passwords and spread viruses and malicious software through local networks, which is why it is critical for wireless router passwords to be impenetrable in information systems that rely on them.
Various security measures include SSID hiding, which is considered simple to decipher if the hacker has more than a minute of interest to spare. MAC ID filtering can either be a blacklist or a whitelist system that permits each connection based on each client’s unique MAC address; this is, like SSID hiding, easy to work around. Static IP addressing protects against casual intruders who would rather exploit easier-to-guess IP addresses.
There are a lot more that we can expand on, but let’s focus on today’s most wide-spread standard established since 2004, the IEEE 802.11i security specification.
Called Wi-Fi Protected Access II, or WPA2, this security standard is the amended version of the highly-criticized IEEE 802.11-1999, which is also known as Wired Equivalent Privacy, or WEP. WPA2 uses Advanced Encryption Standard, or AES, to encrypt passwords. This and its RSN-standard counterpart, the WPAv2, are the security specifications you need to look for when shopping for routers.
These encryption standards are strong enough to be used at home, but in businesses, they should be paired with other security measures like Restricted Access Networks and/or End-to-end Encryption, because, naturally, money-making institutions with a wealth of corporate secrets are more rewarding to attack.
Besides the risk of malicious individuals intruding on your wireless network, you should also think twice before entering public wireless networks, like those offered by coffee shops and airports, to name a few. If you’re not careful enough, you might be prone to network sniffing, where attackers steal personal data, third-party data gathering, where establishments gather survey data they didn’t ask for permission to get, and others. Public network safety is impossible to guarantee; you never know when someone in the crowd is discretely sniffing other users’ data, so it’s best to simply steer clear of the risk.
The Future of Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi, as explained by our needs to strive for more, is always under development. Important technology and telecoms giants have predicted that it will be “almost everywhere”, and that more consumers will expect it to be free in public. Businesses will have to add it to their recurring costs or lose to the competition, as can be seen in recent market studies that show how the availability of Wi-Fi directs businesses’ growth.
Cisco has also predicted that service providers will become even larger when the complexity of Wi-Fi systems forces companies to outsource its management and that this will, in turn, cause the rise of monetization models like advertising to recover network costs.
The internet opened a lot of possibilities since it was first created, and the many ways we can access it opened its own doors, too, like how Wi-Fi proved itself to be capable of doing more than just give us wireless access to cat gifs.
We’ve gotten used to the idea of wireless speakers, baby monitors, coffee makers, heaters, home security, and more. With these, it seems like the technology already injected itself into most aspects of our lives, but the bright minds of researchers and developers are still constantly at work, searching for more innovations.
Our demand for good Wi-Fi is explained by our need to achieve mobility; whereas WLAN forced us to stay rooted to our desks, Wi-Fi allows us to roam within its transmitter’s range, which can have a radius of a hundred feet or more with the help of extended wireless access points. Truly a ground-breaking leap in technology, it is now one of the things that make the world go ‘round.