Why Wi-Fi Almost Didn’t Connect At All

It’s hard to imagine a time or place when you couldn’t quickly check your emails or have a scroll through Instagram. Isn’t it the most frustrating thing when you hit a Wi-Fi deadspot? No connection, nothing, no matter how many times you reload the page. We are so accustomed to working remotely (I’m actually looking out at the solent whilst typing this!) and taking the internet with you wherever you go, it’s very difficult to contemplate a life without Wi-Fi and mobile connectivity.  

Did you know that Wi-Fi very nearly didn’t happen in the first place? Wi-Fi almost hit its very own deadspot – And wouldn’t that have changed our lives as we know it! So how did Wi-Fi come about?

When was Wi-Fi officially launched?

On the 25th September 1999, coming up to 25 years ago, Wi-Fi was officially launched. If you think about the fuss that’s made over a new product launch from Apple, then you might have expected the launch of Wi-Fi itself to be a rather flashy affair. 

In reality, it was a bit Big Bang Theory-esque – A convention centre in Atlanta housing 8 technophiles ready to open their jackets to reveal polo shirts emblazoned with the made-up word Wi-Fi. And all in front of a crowd of just 60 people. 

Some of the biggest tech companies, and some smaller ones too, backed the launch enthusiastically. Even the likes of Apple, Dell and Nokia could never have imagined that they were backing such a huge global phenomenon with incredible economic, social and cultural impact across the world. 

It was the summer of ‘99

Think back to the summer of 1999, if you can. The working world was mostly using wired networks via Ethernet cable. LAN’s (Local Area Networks) connected desktop computers at a rate of 10 Mbps. 

Meanwhile, those trying to send emails from home did so to the sound of a modem trying to connect to another modem via repurposed telephone infrastructure. Dial-up internet and 56 Kbps dial up modems clanked and clanged their way online. Arguments were had over who needed to use the computer and who needed to use the telephone. 

There were products for WLAN’s (Wireless Local Area Networks) but these were predominantly just for businesses. The IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) official wireless standard specification for these wireless products was 802.11. Not only were these products expensive, they were also 5 times slower than their wired equivalent. 

Despite there being a specified wireless standard, this unfortunately didn’t mean that one standards compliant wireless product would be compatible with another. This was largely due to the fact that there were different ways of interpreting the specification. 

These weaknesses meant that some companies looked elsewhere and chose to support other rival technology alliances – Each with their own aim of becoming the actual standard. 

Wi-Fi’s rival – HomeRF

One of these rival specifications was developed by a consortium of other technology giants – Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Intel and Microsoft. Their WLAN ‘HomeRF’ was aimed at consumers (rather than businesses) and was backed by over 80 other companies. In comparison to the other standard, the HomeRF products were not only cheaper but could also communicate with each other. 

With a name like HomeRF (short for Home Radio Frequency) it arguably had a catchier name than IEEE 802.11. They didn’t just have their eyes on the consumer market – They also had big plans for expansion and higher speeds for the business market. 

Despite all of this, the second generation of the IEEE standard, 802.11b was heading steadily for its final approval at the end of September. By the end of the year, there were products due to ship from company 3Com (later acquired by HP along with Compaq). Their products were based on the newer, faster standard and set for release before 1999 ended. 

At the time, networking firm 3Com formed WECA (Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance) bringing together 5 strong advocates for IEEE. Their aim was to make sure that any products using the pending second generation standard would all be compatible with each other. 

Originally tipped to be named ‘FlankSpeed’, connectivity as we know it today was trademarked as Wi-Fi. There began the establishment of the rules by which wireless products could be deemed ‘Wi-Fi Certified.’

What if Wi-Fi had not won out against HomeRF?

Wi-Fi won the wireless standard race, but what if HomeRF had in fact taken the lead? There are ways that all might not have worked out as it has. 

If the second generation standard 802.11b had been delayed, then HomeRF may have been able to sneak ahead. It was only due to a compromise between WLAN industry pioneers (and foes) Lucent Technologies and Harris Semiconductor that meant there was no delay. 

What if FlankSpeed was only available at work?

So what if WECA had decided only to focus on business connectivity? That was a discussed possibility. ‘Go anywhere’ connectivity almost wasn’t on the table. And what if ‘FlankSpeed’ had been chosen over ‘Wi-Fi’? 

A big chunk of today’s workforce rely on being able to bring work home with them. And not just home – What about coffee shops, airports, on the daily commute sitting on the train, the beach even? Nowadays we tend to take work with us wherever we go. 

Had we been using FlankSpeed at the office and HomeRF at home, this would have made things very difficult for anyone working from home. And you can forget about coffee-shop-working and catching up on emails waiting for a plane – It’s possible neither of these public access options would exist. Zones that were not home or the office would have been a no-go (or NoHO (Not Home, Not Office) for working online. Spaces that were neither office nor home would have been a connectivity no man’s land. 

And if you’re wondering about FlankSpeed and Smartphones – That would have been a no as well. The mobile world of online connectivity disappears into the mist, out of grasp. Can you imagine? No, we can’t either. 

Would it have been beneficial to have more than just one wireless standard? 

The benefits of having a singular focus on just the one standard meant that there was more scope for innovation and cost reduction. 

Even if FlankSpeed or HomeRF had gone forth alongside Wi-Fi, it couldn’t have ever become as cheap to run or prevalent and globally penetrating as Wi-Fi. 

Having a universal standard means that retail stores, public spaces and anywhere where we would now expect to be able to connect, could roll it out uninhibited. Had this not been the case, the ability to stream video whilst sipping a coffee or connect to emails whilst sitting on the train may not be available. 

Thinking on a global level, those living in emerging market countries like Nigeria, rely on free Wi-Fi hotspots to be able to connect to the rest of the world. Remote islands like the Bahamas also rely on Wi-Fi to get support following adverse weather conditions like hurricanes. In this way, Wi-Fi provides critical connections all over the world.  

HomeRF folded in 2003 – So how did Wi-Fi succeed so quickly? 

As with all well-laid plans, it’s all in the preparation and timing. With the announcement of the name Wi-Fi and the promise of certified interoperability from WECA, companies investing in this new wireless standard had the assurance that their products would all work together. 

In 2000, 86% of Wi-Fi devices were used for business. Wireless connection in businesses was big business in itself, with chipmakers and PC companies quickly hopping off the fence to support and join Wi-Fi. This led tech giants Microsoft and Intel to jump ship from HomeRF to Wi-Fi. Wireless for business soared in popularity ahead of in the home, which gave Wi-Fi chip volume a boost. This in turn led to closing the cost gap between that and HomeRF, leading it to fold in 2003. 

Since then, over the past 2 decades the Wi-Fi Alliance and IEEE have worked together to represent, guide and oversee Wi-Fi and its subsequent standards. 

The IEEE committee continues to roll-out new standards, and the WI-Fi Alliance makes sure that certified products can communicate with each other. 

So the next time you hit a Wi-Fi deadspot, or find that the Wi-Fi is down in your favourite coffee shop – Stop and breathe. Count your blessings that you can take your work with you wherever you go (mostly) and that you can largely connect via Wi-Fi wherever you need it. 

Do You Need a Media Converter for Your Network?

 Networking and Media Converters have gone hand in hand right from the start. They play a vital role when it comes to solving interconnection problems in networks. 

If you oversee a business network (or one in a large home) then you probably already use this handy device. But are you using the media converter correctly? 

What is a media converter?

A media converter is a networking device that allows you to connect one type of communication protocol cable to another different type of cable. For example, connecting a twisted pair to fibre optic cable. 

By connecting two different media, like Ethernet copper and Ethernet fibre, they can typically connect devices that are beyond 100 metres from the nearest available switch. 

The reach of the copper port can be extended with a copper to fibre converter by connecting a copper port on an Ethernet switch to the fibre that connects the device in the remote location.

The ability to do this provides great flexibility when building and connecting networks, easily connecting fibre and copper cables.

A media converter is usually a two-port device equipped with a copper interface on one side and a fibre interface on the other side.

Another key building block within a network are Switches. They enable you to connect multiple devices, such as computers, wireless access points, printers, and servers;  All on the same network within a building or campus. A switch enables connected devices to share information and talk to each other.

Switches are mostly made up of LAN ports which are usually copper Ethernet with a few fibre-based uplink ports. They are also often SFP-based (small form-factor pluggable used for data communication). The copper ports are used to connect devices within a short-range (up to 100 metres) while the SFP uplinks can connect devices that are further away (which would be useful for other switches and/or servers).

The goal for any well-designed network is to use all the available uplinks. This maximises throughput. Oftentimes, spare LAN ports are kept in order to be able to easily connect new devices in the future. However this only works well if the device is within 100 metres from the switch. It can also cause problems if it is in a ‘noisy’ environment – A copper cable can be susceptible to electromagnetic interference. 

In what sort of situation could we see these issues arise?

  • A computer placed in a remote location
  • An access point in an outdoor area
  • A video surveillance camera
  • An access control system far from the last switch, 

For instances where the LAN must be extended over 100 metres, you will require a network extender, and a media converter would be the ideal solution. 

To extend a network to a distant location, you would use a fibre connection from the switch and a media converter to connect to the device.

The remote device problem is solved with the Ethernet link providing a very long reach thus extending the connection. It also saves you from having to add other switches to the network. 

How Does a Media Converter Work?

Media converters can be split into two main groups. 

The first type of media converter can only convert physical media. For example,copper to fibre, or fibre to copper, without adjusting the speed of the link. This type of device is most commonly used when latency is a critical factor, in other words, when a time delay when transmitting the traffic is unacceptable during conversion. 

The second type of media converters are often called switch converters or rate converters. These are a standard Ethernet switch equipped with two ports. These devices can adjust both the media and the link speed so that it is possible to connect a 10/100/1000T port to a 100FX port. For time-sensitive applications, this type is unsuitable as the switch adds a small amount of latency to the connection.

Do media converters work in both directions?

Yes, they can work in both directions. Media converters work with bidirectional links, so the same model can be used to convert copper to fibre but also fibre to copper. 

If you use these devices in pairs, you can use the same model for both ends since they work both ways.

What Are the Different Types of Media Converters?

There are different types of media converter, including:

  • One that connects fibre and copper cables (the most common)
  • One that can convert Ethernet to VDSL 
  • One that can inject Power over Ethernet (PoE)

Typically, media converters are small standalone unmanaged devices. However, they can also form managed and unmanaged chassis solutions to integrate multiple devices within your network in a 19″ standard rack. For deployments in harsher environments, industrial media converters can be mounted in DIN cabinets to protect the electrical components.  

What is the most common model of media converter? 

As we mentioned above, the most common model of media converter is one which connects copper to fibre with one RJ45 port and one fibre port or SFP bay. To allow another converter or a switch equipped with the appropriate interface to be connected easily, the transport protocol is always Ethernet. 

What about legacy infrastructure?

It’s not always possible to use a fibre link due to legacy infrastructure, for example twisted-pair phone cables or co-ax cables. If these are already in use, replacing with new fibre is not practical. Media converters that convert Ethernet to co-ax or Ethernet to twisted-pair allow the use of legacy infrastructure. 

These devices can reach long distances over legacy cables due to using VDSL (Very high Data rate Subscription Line) technology.

As mentioned above, another type of converter can provide Power over Ethernet (PoE) on the copper Ethernet port to power remote devices. This is particularly useful for things like CCTV cameras or access control gates, and helps to simplify deployment of physical security solutions.

Covering the most commonly used interfaces today, media converter port speeds include Fast Ethernet, Gigabit and 10 Gigabit. Transceivers through an SFP port are able to operate on fibres from just a few metres in length up to 120km, satisfying a wide range of distances and speeds.

Media converters are useful for desktops too

Did you know that media converters can be used on the desktop too? 

The USB to fibre Ethernet media converter acts as a Network Interface Card for your desktop or laptop – Quickly deploying a Fibre To The Desk (FTTD) solution for security-sensitive applications, or those more than 100 metres from the switch.

What Are the Features of a Media Converter?

The majority of media converters are not smart devices, however there are some media converters that have smart features that can help to simplify the management of large networks. 

‘Have you turned it off and then on again?’

We’ve all heard that old IT joke. But actually there’s a reason why IT guru’s and network engineers say those notorious words. One of the most common ways to solve computer-related issues is to ‘power-cycle’ the device – Often, simply turning it off and then on again makes the problem disappear. 

For PoE (Power over Ethernet) powered devices, disconnecting the power on the switch port connected to the device having issues will automatically reset it. 

However, most media converters are not managed remotely and thus any that are on a remote site cannot simply turn the power off. In this case, a network engineer (or other person) would have to physically go to the remote site and disconnect and then reconnect the PoE cable. 

Some configurable PoE Media converters enable PoE power to be reset whenever the fibre connection is turned off and on. This ‘smart’ feature would prevent the need for a physical remote site visit by enabling you to control the PoE power via the fibre connection on the switch, resetting the remote device. 

Has all this talk of fibre cables and Ethernet ports got you in a tizz?

Call the experts! Here at Geekabit, our experienced Wi-Fi engineers can help at any stage of network deployment – From site surveys to design to installation

We’re only a phone call away, and can help get your business or large home properly connected. 

Thinking you’re too rural? We’ve got 4G for that! Our mobile and satellite broadband options could be just the thing you’re looking for. 

Get in touch with our Wi-Fi experts today.

50 Years of Ethernet – But It’s Far From Over The Hill

Last month was the 50th anniversary of Ethernet – Half a century of this useful bit of tech kit. And as it turns out – You can teach this old dog some new tricks. 

Ethernet has proved its adaptability over the years, and continues to evolve along with technological developments including the worlds of AI, distributed computing and virtual reality. 

The History of Ethernet

Ethernet is somewhat unrivalled – Can you think of another technology that has been as influential? Its usefulness and success has shown over the past 50 years and it looks like it’s journey is set to continue for the foreseeable future.

Ethernet was invented by Bob Metcalf and David Boggs in 1973. Since then, Ethernet has been adapted and expanded across all industries, continuing to be the reliable Layer-2 protocol in computer networking.

It has literally been deployed everywhere – Including under the oceans and in outer space! This universality has led to further expansions, with the most impactful area currently using Ethernet being large cloud data centres. Part of this is the linking of AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning) clusters which is a rapidly growing area. 

Why Does Ethernet Have Such Broad Applications?

The bottom line is that in the majority of cases, there is no need to invent another network in order to connect what you need to connect. Ethernet brings flexibility and adaptability – 2 of the most important characteristics of any technology or communication network. 

Did you know that Ethernet was integral to business’ response to Covid?

When the pandemic hit, those who were able to work from home had to stay home. All of a sudden, we had a world full of distributed workforces all trying to stay connected. On top of that, we had a generation of home-learners thrust into online education and teachers teaching through video-conferencing. And let’s not forget that the strict social distancing measures meant more people connected through online gaming.  

This shift to remote working on such a large scale saw Ethernet applications play a large role in keeping things going due to the huge pressure on communication service providers to offer enough bandwidth to keep everyone online.

Ethernet is the foundation of internet technology. Connecting through Ethernet meant that those who had to stay home – Whether they were working, learning or playing – could have their internet needs met in their own homes despite the increased demand. 

Ethernet in Space

There are some really unique applications of Ethernet thanks to such widespread development. 

For example, for more than 20 years Ethernet has been used in space for exploration and on the International Space Station. It has also been used for Mars missions and on satellites. 

But why? The connectivity that Ethernet provides is seamless, which is vital for communication systems that are mission critical like sensors, cameras, controls and telemetry. When it comes to vehicles and devices like satellites and probes, Ethernet has been indispensable. 

Ethernet has also proved itself to be a key part of ground-to-space and space-to-ground communication. 

Ethernet for In-Vehicle Networks

It’s not just in outer space that Ethernet comes in useful – It’s the backbone of in-vehicle networks in the air (like f-45 fighter jets), on the ground and under the sea. It replaced Controller Area Network (CAN) and Local Interconnect Network (LIN) protocols as a more capable alternative. 

Ethernet is relied upon to provide connectivity for UAV’s (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and UUV’s (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles). These vehicles enable the monitoring of atmospheric conditions, tides and temperatures as well as providing next-generation surveillance and security systems – All because of Ethernet. 

Why Ethernet?

Ethernet is replacing the majority of ‘specialised buses’ of data communication and storage across all industries.

But why is Ethernet so all-encompassing? It’s simple and effective. 

  • Ethernet has simple connectors
  • It’s simple to make Ethernet work on existing twisted pair cabling
  • Simple frame types are easy to de-bug
  • It’s simple to encapsulate traffic on Ethernet
  • It’s simple to access control mechanisms

All these things have meant that Ethernet is a fast, cheap, easy-to-troubleshoot option for:

  • Embedded NICs in motherboards
  • Ethernet Switches of any size, speed flavour combo
  • Gigabit Ethernet NIC cards that pioneered jumbo frames 
  • Ethernet NIC and Switch optimizations for all kinds of use cases
  • Features like EtherChannel – channel bonding sets of ports in a stat-mux config 

What’s Next for Ethernet Development?

Not only have we seen how vitally useful Ethernet is currently, it’s also set to keep its value in the future. 

We’re seeing high-level resources committed to Ethernet and the continued technical work to improve features and functionality further. 

The IEEE P802.3dj Task Force is currently developing the next generation of Ethernet electrical and optical signalling. 

Over the past 50 years we’ve seen time and time again how Ethernet has solved problems across industries, bringing it all together with evolving developments. There is a strong likelihood that this will continue and only grow stronger. 

Ethernet and Internet Speed

When we talk about internet speeds, we focus on speed – Everyone wants dast internet! Ethernet is always drawing attention for his top speeds which seems to only continue to increase. 

But there is actually a market for the enhancement of slower speeds via Ethernet too on 2.5 Gbps, 5 Gbps and 25 Gbps. 

Over the last 20 years, it’s reported that over 9 billion Ethernet switch ports have been shipped, with a market value of over $450 billion. Ethernet is responsible for connected people on a global level, playing a pivotal role in connectivity between things, devices and ultimately people. 

What’s Next for Ethernet Expansions?

On the IEEE website it lists some future expansions for Ethernet which include:

  • Short reach
  • Optical interconnects based on 100 Gbps wavelengths
  • Precision Time Protocol (PTP) Timestamping clarifications
  • Automotive Optical Multigig
  • Next steps in Single-Pair ecosystem
  • 100 Gbps over Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) systems
  • 400 Gbps over DWDM systems
  • A study group proposal for Automotive 10G+ Copper; and 200 Gbps, 400 Gbps, 800 Gbps, and 1.6 Tbps Ethernet

There is continuing expansion of the Ethernet portfolio with some potentially game-changing advances, for example:

  • Power over Ethernet (PoE)
  • Single Pair Ethernet (SPE) (Handling Ethernet transmission via a single pair of copper wires)
  • Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN) (A standard way to provide deterministic and guaranteed delivery of data over a network) 

It’s Not Just Ethernet That’s Evolving

We know that in the world of technology, things move at a fast pace and are always evolving and advancing. 

These evolving technologies rely on Ethernet. We spoke at the start of this article about the role Ethernet has to play in things like AI and VR. Advancements in these areas wouldn’t happen without Ethernet. 

As with many things technological, latency can be a huge problem and it’s paramount that this is managed. Ethernet and Precision Time Protocol is expected to help address this latency issue by enabling Ethernet to evolve into a connectivity technology with defined latency objectives.  

There are lots of instances industry-wide where time-precision and synchronised operations are vital. The telecommunications sector is just one of these, especially when it comes to 5G networks and the future 6G networks. 

Enterprise LANs could also benefit from the predefined latency that Ethernet networks can provide, especially when addressing the requirements of AI technologies and synchronising GPU’s across data centres. 

Ethernet is intertwined with emerging tech, heavily influencing how they function and evolve. 

Ethernet and AI

AI technology requires multiple services all needing low-latency connections. Therefore, Ethernet expansion will also be a key area for AI computing infrastructure and application development. 

You’re probably starting to see more AI in your day-to-day life. Things such as AI generative artwork are increasing in popularity. They use Ethernet as a foundational communications layer so these new AI services will need huge infrastructure investments.

AI and cloud computing tools are expected to drive the evolution of technology consumption, devices and networks – Both for work and leisure. 

For Wireless, You Need Wired

Let’s not forget that you can’t have wireless without wired. Ethernet is at the heart of wireless networks as they continue to expand. All wireless AP’s need some kind of wired infrastructure. 

The data centres that power cloud computing, AI and other future technologies are all connected together by wires and fibre connections. And where do they go back to? Ethernet switches. 

Ethernet and Power Efficiency

Efficiency and power consumption are a big deal, especially currently. There is a need to reduce Ethernet power consumption and this also drives part of its ongoing development.

Minimising power consumption is essential, which is where Energy-Efficient Ethernet comes in. It powers down links when there is not a lot of traffic, thus minimising power consumption. 

Ethernet as the Foundation of Engineering

Ethernet is hugely popular hence why so many IT professionals are training in using and deploying it. 

Having celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, it’s no wonder that it continues to be the foundation that the engineering world is built on. With decades of development behind it, Ethernet technology is continuing to expand. 

Whatever the future holds technology wise, Ethernet will likely be there to connect it all together in some form.