Where wi-fi began
The story of Wi-Fi, and its origins at Macquarie University, has become the stuff of academic and entrepreneurial legend. Today, some five billion devices use wireless technology; Wi-Fi has an impact on the lives of millions across the globe. It has transformed communication, business and entertainment: few parts of our daily lives have been left untouched by wireless technology.
The story began in the early 1990s as an idea originated by Dr David Skellern, who was Professor of Electronics and head of Macquarie’s Department of Electronics. Dr Skellern had been considering the possibility of wireless communication for some time and teamed up with researchers with similar ideas from the CSIRO to progress the idea.
Together, the two institutions applied for grant funding to establish a Cooperative Research Centre specialising in Local Environment Communications Technology. Like many ideas that are forward-thinking, theirs was unsuccessful at first: “We didn’t get past the first cull,” recalls Dr Skellern. “But the beauty was we wrote a lot of material and developed our ideas very quickly.”
Determined to continue their research, the team resolved to develop a wireless networking system that could transmit data as quickly as wired networks. The pressure was on: Australia was not alone in seeing the need for the technology.
In the US, there was growing interest in wireless computing. In 1995, Dr Skellern was joined by Neil Weste, an expatriate Australian who had spent many years working in the US as an electronics engineer in academia and industry. In his new position as Professor of Microelectronics at Macquarie University, Dr Weste worked closely with Dr Skellern and CSIRO to research and develop wireless technologies.
Drawing on their work in radioastronomy, the CSIRO invented a way to format radio signals so they could transmit data at high speed. Carrying the signal from modems to computers and other wireless devices required the development of hardware. With financial help from CSIRO, Dr Skellern and Dr Weste set to work on a new radio-transmitting microchip that was small, reliable and economical.
“What we did at Macquarie was show that it really was viable to make systems using the signalling format that could be small and economic, that would be commercially viable,” explains Dr Skellern. “We showed how to make the system practical, how to make it low-cost so that it could be in everyone’s devices – in everyone’s handheld devices and computers as it is now.”
By 1997, the need for wireless communication reached a critical point. In the US, President Bill Clinton and Vice-President Al Gore had promised to deliver internet access to every classroom in every state, only to discover that wiring was a problem. Many school buildings had asbestos in the walls and the cost of removing it, as wires were installed, had not been accounted for.
The solution was wireless computing. Recognising that the time was right, Dr Skellern and Dr Weste founded Radiata Communications to launch their technology as a commercial venture: “We decided to start a company to commercialise the technology and benefit from a global opportunity,” explains Dr Skellern. Their focus remained the US where a new part of the microwave radio spectrum had been allocated to Wireless Local Area Networks (or WLAN). Radiata now had the infrastructure as well as the opportunity to put theory into practice.
The next breakthrough was the discovery that low-cost semiconductors could be used to transmit radio signals. Complementary metal oxide semiconductors (CMOS) had been used in computing, but not in microwave radios. Radiata invented design techniques that allowed CMOS to be used for WLAN microwave radio transceivers. Armed with prototypes of their wireless data transmitting CMOS chips, Radiata was ready to find industry partners.
Cisco Systems, a global leader in communication systems, and Broadcom Corporation, a leading semiconductor company, recognised the opportunity. In 1999, Radiata was incorporated in the US backed by $6 million in venture capital from the two partners. In September 2000, Radiata unveiled the world’s first wireless computer chips at a major trade show in Atlanta. “We demonstrated our chips very openly so that everyone could see there were no tricks,” says Dr Skellern. “It was a really big success.”
By 2001, Cisco had bought Radiata outright in a share deal worth $565 million. Dr Skellern became Technology Director of Cisco’s Wireless Networking Business Unit and Dr Weste also joined the company. The first products using their technology were launched commercially in 2002.
Alongside their work for Radiata and Cisco, Skellern and Weste taught part-time at Macquarie and remained committed to the development of young researchers. “We both wanted to feed back into the university system to train new people,” says Dr Skellern. “We wanted to have people understand what was required in mass production, state-of-the-art technology because we saw that there was a great opportunity for Australia to do well in that area.”
In 2003, Dr Skellern was appointed to the NICTA Board, Australia’s largest information and communications technology research group, and went on to become its CEO. He has also won many awards in recognition of his work: in 2012 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Macquarie University.
Dr Skellern believes that the innovation of Wi-Fi technology at Macquarie owes much to the university’s commitment to collaboration and multidisciplinary research. He also recognises the importance of engagement with industry to achieve commercial success. “We were clever in how we worked with industry to get acceptance of the technology… we got a big company like Cisco involved who could push our technology forward.”
Today, the impact of his discoveries continues to be felt throughout the world. Wireless communications continue to change the way that we live our lives.
“The long-term legacy is clear in that over five billion devices in the world have Wi-Fi,” he says. “I’m, not saying they wouldn’t have it without us, but we got there first. Certainly, we pioneered the way to make the technology viable.”
View the article on pioneers of the wired world
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