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Top Ten WiFi Stories of the Decade
Tuesday, 15 December 2009 00:00

ABI Research indicates that wireless connections will remain the dominant technology, with Wi-Fi connections expected to rise from 113 million in 2008 to more than 285 million by 2012. Ethernet will remain a strong second place. JiWire says there are 293,127 free and pay Wi-Fi locations in 139 countries.

WiFi connections now total 1.2 billion, says In-Stat. By the end of 2012, a cumulative five billion WiFi chipsets will have beem shipped since ABI Research began tracking them in 2000. It will be in 99% of US schools in 2013, in phones, cafes, trains, planes and automobiles. Pretty much everywhere.

1.  IEEE 802.11b, 11g & 11n standards (1999-2009):
Ten years ago, IEEE 802.11b-1999 was officially approved. At 11 Mbps, the $300 cards were a big jump over the original 802.11 standard which topped out at 1 Mbps and cost nearly $1000. Today, most WiFi clients cost less than $50 and use 802.11g (54Mbps), 802.11a/g (54Mbps), or 802.11n (120-600 Mbps).

Not bad for a “junk” band.

In 2003, 802.11g became the law of the W-LAN, bringing 2.4 GHz up to speed, although a variety of incompatible “draft” variations kept many in the slow boat. By 2004, single-chip 802.11g Access Points and dual band 802.11a/g devices began to appear. The price dropped. A revolution began.

Today, 802.11n adds multiple-input multiple-output antennas and 40 MHz channels to deliver speeds from 100-600 Mbps. With the finalization of IEEE 802.11n in late 2009, WiFi is positioned to become a network hub for video, games and voice.

2.  Cometa (2002-2004):
In 2002, IBM, Intel and AT&T created a company called Cometa Networks with an audacious plan; they would form a national Wi-Fi network with 20,000+ “hot spots”. Cometa would resell the service to ISPs and wireless cellular carriers. It would use a single sign-on, single authentication, seamless-roaming nationwide network. The company planned to have coverage within a 5 minutes walk in an urban area or 5 minutes drive in a rural area — by 2004.

It was crazy talk. When it folded in 2004, it didn’t seem so crazy. Today Starbucks and AT&T have picked up the gautlet laid down by Dr. Larry Brilliant, and have been joined with half a dozen other WiFi networks with global ambitions.

3.  Starbucks (2004):
Virtually all U.S. company-operated Starbucks now have WiFi and deliver it for free if you have an AT&T account, or nearly free (if you buy a $5 Starbucks card). Starbucks was the big Kahuna. With over 10,000 coffee shops in the United States and over 5,000 internationally, WiFi just 5 minutes away became a reality in most big cities.

In 2002, T-Mobile and Starbucks had more than 2,000 locations. Most of the othes have fewer than 1,000 locations nationally, including Surf And Sip (now available in 16 states and 4 countries) and FatPort (with locations in Canada). In February 2008, Starbucks announced a new comprehensive agreement with AT&T to provide WiFi. Wi-Fi is now free for customers with AT&T’s DSL service or iPhone accounts. A $5 Starbucks Card now gets anyone two free hours of Wi-Fi daily at any Starbucks.

4.  WEP is Dead, Long Live WPA-2 (2004):
The Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) system, introduced in 1997, was easily cracked and is now considered to be completely insecure by security experts.

The Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) is now widely used on today’s Wi-Fi networks. But even the WPA Encryption can be broken in 60 Seconds, claim some researchers. WPA Cracker, a new website, lets you submit the result of a handshake with a WPA-protected Wi-Fi point, and will have the password back to you before you’ve finished your cup of coffee. It costs $34. They do a massively parallel dictionary attack on the bit of encrypted data you send their way. WPA2, incorporates the IEEE 802.11i security standard. It’s the latest and greatest. All Wi-Fi-certified products have had to support WPA-2 since March 2006. Let’s hope it stays secure a little longer.

5.  Free WiFi Everywhere (2009):
Free Wi-Fi is now the norm. McDonalds will soon start offering free wireless Internet access at its U.S. restaurants. Barnes & Noble, the largest book chain in the United States, provides free WiFi for patrons, in a deal with AT&T, while Borders, the second-largest bookstore chain in the United States (after Barnes & Noble), has free wireless Internet access in about 500 of its U.S. stores.

All U.S. Starbucks hot spots are free for AT&T customers while a $5 or more Starbucks Card, will get you two free consecutive hours daily. Verizon is partnering with Boingo to deliver free WiFi access. Free Verizon Wi-Fi hot spot locations include hotels, airports, restaurants, coffee shops, retailers, convention centers and public locations across the U.S. Boingo’s network of Wi-Fi hotspots – which includes more than 100,000 locations around the world – IF you’re a Verizon FiOS or DSL broadband subscriber. Google is providing free Wi-Fi at airports, now through January 15, 2010.

6.  WiFi on Planes (2005):
Boeing’s Connexion service, back in 2005, promoted WiFi in airplanes as the future. But the joint effort between Boeing, American, Delta, and United, folded in 2006 after onboard equipment proved too expensive and heavy. The $30 fee for access was too pricey for many passengers. Today, however, nearly every major U.S. airline seems to be planning Wi-Fi access. The number of broadband enabled airplanes will increase from 25 in 2008 to 800 in 2009, reports In-Stat.

Gogo, using Aircell’s 800 MHz terrestrial service, is competing with satellite-based Row 44 and others such as OnAir, which uses Inmarsat’s SwiftBroadband service.

Southwest and Alaska Airlines are testing Row 44-enabled Wi-Fi while Southwest currently charges from $2 to $12, depending on the distance you are traveling and the type of device you are using to connect. Alaska Airlines is still assessing their pricing. Virgin America started offering Wi-Fi using Gogo on all flights between Washington and Los Angeles, California, and all of its Boston routes. Now all Virgin America planes have full Wi-Fi service. Other airlines using Aircell’s Gogo include American Airlines, which will install WiFi on more than 300 domestic aircraft over the next two years and Delta Air Lines, aboard more than 330 aircraft.
JiWire now offers free in-flight Wi-Fi with Row 44 which is supported by advertising. They were joined in late 2009 by Google’s free WiFi on every Virgin America flight during the holiday season using Aircell’s Gogo.

JetBlue provides limited, free Wi-Fi on its BetaBlue aircraft using LiveTV. Services include e-mail access through Yahoo! Mail, Microsoft Exchange, Gmail, Windows Live (Hotmail, MSN, Live) and AOL. Frontier Airlines uses LiveTV for its in-flight entertainment. The airline is testing a LiveTV product that would provide Wi-Fi.

7.  WiFi on Trains (2007):
WiFi on Trains seems too good to ignore; passengers take long trips and train routes pass lots of cell towers.

It happened first in Europe and Asia. Sweden’s Icomera, notched up its one millionth customer, a couple years ago. GNER, which runs the East Coast Mainline in the UK, introduced on-train wireless in 2004. National Express can expect even more customers since they plan free access to all passengers. Nomad Digital was the first company in UK to trial WiFi on board trains and the first to trial WiMAX as a backhaul technology for trains. It’s used by Virgin Trains and was trialed by Caltrain.

NTT Communications will offers Wi-Fi on high speed rail between Tokyo and Osaka. The service will be an extension of the company’s HotSpot service, which already offers access in shops, restaurants, hotels and other locations across Japan.

California’s Capitol Corridor has released a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) to seek a firm that will develop and install an advanced wireless network system for its intercity passenger rail system, the Capitol Corridor and San Joaquin Intercity Passenger Rail train services.

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom recently unveiled the first of 1,100 solar powered bus shelters that will provide WiFi throughout the city. Eighteen companies, including Cablevision and Verizon Wireless, are seeking to offer wireless Internet service throughout the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad systems, reports Newsday.

Almost all major national railway operators are either running on-board WiFi or trialing it; including the UK, France, Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain — and many in China, Japan, South Korea and India.

8.  WiFi on Automobiles (2007):
Sure cellular phoning in your car has been banned in many states. But it doesn’t seem to stop the movement to transform the car into a mobile hotspot. Controlling multi-media in cars (phones, stereo, heating/AC, navigation, etc), requires an intuitive user interface, often with voice recognition. Car control systems include Audi’s Multi Media Interface, Ford’s Sync, the Mercedes Command system, BMW’s iDrive and Toyota Telematics.

GM’s OnStar service is getting an add on WiFi unit with cellular backbone and lets you request directions to the nearest shopping mall. Ford’s SYNC services uses a TellMe interface and turn-by-turn navigation from DeCarta and TeleNav. It can also track the tools in your truck.

The speech technology engine used in by Mercedes myCOMAND is provided by Nuance Communications. Toyota Telematics using its G-Book Alpha system will automatically collect from the internet all information necessary for a service – be it hotel descriptions, weather forecasts or the details of available parking spaces.

9.  Grass roots WiFi (2002):
Flashing Your Access Point to create a wireless distribution system (WDS) and manage a hotspot network with control over traffic shaping and other features became a phenomena early in the decade. Grassroots efforts were quiet successful in the mid part of the decade when free WiFi was not widely available. The vision of Seattle Wireless, which started in 2000, was to create an entirely standalone broadband network, with local repeaters, all build by volunteers.

Portland’s Personal Telco Project, among the better known community-based organizations, built a free access point model, using volunteers. At first, Linux computers were obtained from recycler FreeGeek, then loaded with open source software that would provide free WiFi with an automatic disclaimer and splash page. Later, Linksys, Buffalo or Netgear access points were reflashed with the WiFiDog software or DD-WRT firmware, eliminating the computer.

PersonalTelco unwired the Mississippi neighborhood in north Portland (video above), with backhaul contributed by local providers like Stephouse Networks. Other community groups in New York, San Diego, Chicago, Perth, and elsewhere developed similar (and different) approaches to free community WiFi.

A spin off of MIT’s mesh networking group formed Meraki and soon partnered with the city of San Francisco to provide free wireless internet access to affordable housing complexes in the city. Volunteers host an outdoor repeater on a roof or balcony. A gateway is a Meraki device that is directly connected to a Meraki-sponsored DSL line, which is supplied without charge. A repeater is a Meraki device that repeats the wireless signal but is not directly plugged into an Internet source.

Michael Burmeister-Brown, developed Dashboard Software that made managing dozens, even hundreds, of repeaters fast, easy and cost/effective. His Open-Mesh is 100% open source and deployed on top of OpenWRT. You can change anything. We’ll leave the rise (and fall) of Municipal WiFi for another Top Ten list.

10.  Home Networking: Fast and Slow (2009):
At least five major wireless standards are competing for Gigabit home networking and at least as many or positioning for Smart Metering and energy conservation.

The WiGig Alliance completed WiGig 1.0, paving the way for tri-band Wi-Fi routers as early as 2010. The spec extends the 802.11 Medium Access Control (MAC) layer to 60 GHz, with a fallback to 5 GHz WiFi. If WiGig adopts both IEEE 802.11ad (in the 60 GHz band) and IEEE 802.11n or even IEEE 802.11ac (in the 5 GHz band), it could be a major force for consolidating high throughput home networking standards. WirelessHD can use the same 7GHz of continuous bandwidth at 60 GHz to send uncompressed HD video but does not fall back to 5 GHz. The specification, originally proposed by SiBeam.

The Wireless Home Digital Interface (at 5GHz) rolled out Version 1.0 and claims speeds that are “equivalent” up to 3 Gbit/s (including 1080p/60Hz), using a 40MHz channel in the 5GHz unlicensed band. What “equivalent” means is anyone’s guess. WHDI’s secret sauce prioritizes the most visually significant bits of a video stream with error correction. Quantenna (at 5 GHz) uses the Wi-Fi protocol 802.11n in the 5 GHz band and multiple antennas to transfer video. Quantenna combines 4×4 MIMO, transmit beamforming, vector mesh routing, and two or four concurrent bands for link rates up to 1 Gbps.

Smart Meters are going in another direction. Utilities are using their own licensed frequencies, cellular networks and WiMAX, explains Earth2Tech. But currently there is no compatibility between the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (Moca), the HomePNA, the HomePlug Powerline Alliance, and the Universal Powerline Alliance (UPA). Those incompatible networking technologies use coax, phone line, or power line. The HomeGrid Forum announced in December that the ITU has agreed upon the key components of the G.hn specification. They hopes to connect any device over any wire — coax cable, phone line, and power line, world-wide.

Those are my arbitrary Top Ten Wi-Fi news stories of the decade. What are yours?

 

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