In 1991, the NCR corporation created a wireless protocol in the Netherlands, originally dubbed WaveLAN. It was intended for use in cashier systems and had a relatively slow data rate. Making the technology faster stumped scientists around the world, and prevented the technology from taking off.
In 1992, a team of scientists at the CSIRO, led by Dr John O’Sullivan, were working on a mathematical formula to tidy up the intergalactic radio waves they were using while researching black holes. The mathematics involved, called “fast Fourier transforms”, involved a thorough understanding of how radio waves behave in different environments. It was only later that the team discovered their work in astronomy could be applied to wireless technology being developed here on planet Earth as well.
The technology basically beats the interference caused by reflected radio waves by splitting radio channels apart. One of the better analogies of what it does is turning a one way road into a multi-lane highway, with the end result being a network about five times faster.
In 1992, the CSIRO received an Australian patent for their technology, and were awarded a US patent in 1996. This is quite possibly the most important patent the CSIRO has ever received, as it provided the backbone of their argument in the legal battle that was to follow. A decade after the patent, Intel and Apple were among the companies who launched wireless devices using the CSIRO technology, and later fought to have the patent invalidated.
It was a long legal battle, but in April 2009 the last 14 companies – including 3Com, Asus, Belkin, D-Link, Dell, Intel, Microsoft, Netgear, Nintendo, SMC and Toshiba – battling the CSIRO in court decided to settle. The end result was a huge financial windfall. In 2009, the technology had earned the CSIRO more than $200 million.
That same year Dr O’Sullivan was awarded the prestigious Prime Minister’s Prize for Science award and a $300,000 cash prize. But given the fact that Wi-Fi technology has moved beyond the scope of computers, and now appears in everything from TVs, phones and games consoles (and fridges, ovens and washing machines in the very near future), the bigger reward is the sense of satisfaction that Australian ingenuity has changed the world we live in.