The History of Wireless Internet

By: Eliana Zhang

In just a couple of decades, wireless internet has taken over people’s lives. Humanity went from hardly ever using computers to constantly having a device that has the power to communicate with anyone in the world. Today, someone living in a place such as the United States would almost always go on a website or a social media app supported by wireless internet. Despite its importance in connecting people, though, it is rare that the average person understands how wireless internet works, or how it even came to be.

Wireless internet became significant in the late 20th century as well as the 21st century, but the concept existed back in the early 1900s when the famous inventor Nikola Tesla conceptualized a world wireless system. The idea, however, was not popular until the 1960s, when J.C.R. Licklider of MIT popularized the idea of a wireless Intergalactic Network of computers. His thoughts were eccentric and original, and some of his ideas, such as digital libraries and online banking, outlined many of the Internet’s current features. In 1968, he published a paper called “The Computer as a Communication Device,” which was an unthought-of concept in his field. He saw computer network applications as potential communication devices instead of the mere mathematical tools they were at the time, and brought awareness to the potential of such a device. Licklider is often hailed as the “father of the Internet,” and without his work, no one might have conceived of using computers for wireless internet. During his time as the director of the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), it was also his influence that ultimately resulted in the establishment of the ARPANET.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or the ARPANET, was the first successful wireless network prototype of its kind, and the present-day wireless internet was modeled after it. A large part of its success was due to its use of packet switching, a new method of transmitting electronic information. Packet switching was first developed to replace the ethernet cable and was designed to address the flaws of circuit switch networks. It continues to be used today. It works by breaking data into small pieces called packets then using a store and forward technique to transmit information to the destination, where the packets are reassembled. This method was more efficient because in breaking the data up, it minimizes the transmission latency. Furthermore, it had more than one path for the data and as such, was more fault-tolerant than circuit switching. Due to its store and forward technique, if a packet is lost in transmission, it can be copied and retransmitted.

Despite its importance, packet switching was not the whole system. The actual protocol used by the Internet was and continues to be the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. It was developed by scientists Robert Khan, who also demonstrated the ARPANET at the International Computer Communication Conference, and Vinton Cerf, who later engineered the first commercial email service, MCI Mail. Through the use of it, computers can share data on a network, and it is what assembles the data packets in the correct order, making sure each packet is where it should be. The TCP/IP protocol uses packet switching, and each packet, called an IP datagram, contains header information and data. The header information lets the computer know the packet size, the destination, and the source. The IP protocol allows for the computer to read the IP address of the packet to obtain the destination, while the TCP protocol establishes the connection between the two computers in the first place. This protocol was a model for future networks for transmitting data through wireless internet and continues to be a large part of how wireless internet works today. For their work in developing wireless internet’s structure, both Robert Khan and Vinton Cerf received the U.S. National Medal of Technology, the ACM Alan M. Turing award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In modern times, wireless internet has about the same system, and packet switching still is essential, but the process was developed and now is a bit different. Wireless routers can deliver a strong signal to one’s computer and the radio waves from both the router and the computer allow web users to download and upload information from the Internet. These wireless internet signals can broadcast on both 2.4 and 5 gigahertz frequencies, which was developed to counter obstacles such as cement walls and other signals. Despite it having advanced to the point of being able to communicate to the other side of the planet, present day wireless internet is still largely similar to the ARPANET, and J.C.R. Licklider, Robert Khan, and Vinton Cerf all were crucial members of this journey.

Wireless internet has made a massive impact on communication around the world, and most people cannot go through their daily lives without their wireless internet devices anymore. Because it only needs an internet signal to work, it provides a quick and convenient way for people to communicate. As a result, one no longer needs to attach a confining cable to a computer to transfer information to someone physically unavailable. Furthermore, it allows anyone to interact with it, which lets all people that have compatible devices use it. A large portion of the world’s population uses wireless internet to communicate through websites, social media, and countless other features of it. J.C.R Licklider’s ambition for this concept helped it transform from a mere project to something that has made its way through every corner of life, and ultimately, it is one of the most influential communications technologies used today.

What did you learn?

Who came up with the concept of wireless internet/invented it? A massive group of scientists worked on wireless internet as a whole, but J.C.R. Licklider popularized the idea in the 1960s. This led to Robert Khan and Vincent Cerf developing the TCP/IP protocol, which was and continues to be the backbone of wireless internet.

What is packet switching?

It is a method of transmitting electronic information. It works by breaking data into small pieces (“packets”) then using a store and forward technique to transmit information to the destination, where the packets are reassembled. Each packet contains header information and data. The header information lets the computer know the packet size, the destination, and the source. It minimizes the transmission latency and since there was more than one path for the data, it was more fault-tolerant than the previously used circuit switching.