In the world we live in today, Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. It’s in every smartphone, tablet, and laptop, and you’ll find Wi-Fi signals broadcast everywhere — throughout your house, your office, the local shopping centre, fast food store and cafe. It wasn’t always that way. 20 years ago, connecting a computer network wirelessly simply wasn’t practical or possible — a few particularly pesky physics problems got in the way. Australia’s boffins took care of it, though, and the legacy of that innovation is in every wireless device you use at home, at work and everywhere in between. This is how they discovered fire in the 20th century.
In the early 1990s, the wired Ethernet network standard had already been around for 20 years, and the twisted-pair LAN cable had been around for a decade. Wired networks were great for reliability and speed, but they weren’t especially versatile. As laptop computers were starting to make significant strides forward in battery life, they needed to be unleashed from office desks — and the biggest hurdle was in allowing them to communicate with other devices, and the Internet, wirelessly.
The astronomy buffs in CSIRO’s Radio Physics division were responsible for the breakthrough. With a background in radioastronomy — studying the radio-frequency emissions of celestial bodies like quasars and pulsars — the team, led by Dr John O’Sullivan, had experience in interpreting and managing the behaviour of radio waves in different environments.
Turning their minds to the problem of transmitting and receiving a wireless data signal at high speeds within an indoor environment, the team came up with a novel solution that forms the basis of almost all wireless data communications in use today. They designed what would become a true competitor to wired networks — the wireless LAN.
The biggest problem facing indoor wireless communication is that there are plenty of close, hard surfaces for radio signals to bounce off. Since a wireless router’s antenna is never pointing directly at the device it is communicating with, a single signal broadcast can arrive multiple times as it bounces off walls, ceilings and indoor objects.
When you’re transmitting multiple signals in quick succession — required for a fast data rate — these echoes can interrupt any signals subsequent to the first one, causing interference that persists and obstructs communication. This is the ‘multipath’ issue that, until the early ’90s, confounded scientists trying to construct a wireless local area network.
This is where CSIRO came in. Its solution, detailed in US Patent US 5487069 A, was to transmit sequential data signals across slightly different radio frequencies within a single band, using fast Fourier transform calculations to work out the data inside a signal according to its frequency and the time of its arrival. This was a big ask at the time, when raw computing power wasn’t nearly as readily available as it is today. The different frequencies meant that signals didn’t bump into each other, and the use of a large number of low bit-rate channels meant that a surprisingly fast speed was possible.
The true novelty of CSIRO’s work was that it was versatile, practical and simple.
Simple enough that no truly superior or more useful system for transmitting data wirelessly has been developed since. The patent itself is a difficult read, talking about bit-rates and Forward Error Correction and automatic repeat requests, but trust us — it’s a brilliant piece of engineering and science at work.
Members from the team went on to design the world’s first 802.11a Wi-Fi chipset with Radiata Networks, which was eventually acquired by Cisco in 2000. Cisco released its own home Wi-Fi router in 2002, and when competitors came out with copycat devices, CSIRO went searching for the royalties it deserved.
In April 2012, the Australian research institution settled a 10-year dispute with US telecommunications companies including AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile worth around $220 million. And that’s not the only settlement it received — dozens of other major technology companies have been up against CSIRO.
As a result of its Wi-Fi technology patent, Aussie scientists at the CSIRO has been in conflict with almost every major PC and wireless device manufacturer around; even Intel, Dell, HP and Microsoft were battling CSIRO’s lawyers in 2005, filing a counter-suit against the Australian institution’s patent damages request.
CSIRO’s US patent on Wi-Fi expired at the end of 2013, so the organisation is no longer receiving royalties — but in the 17 years the patent was in operation, it brought in around $500 million in licensing fees and payments.
The Australian government is slowly winding back the scope of Australia’s peak scientific research organization in a bid to save cash in the upcoming Federal Budget. As a result, CSIRO contractors are being let go, as are vital support teams designed to keep the agency at peak efficiency. One of the support teams most recently let go is the outside legal team that has worked with the CSIRO to protect its most valuable and arguably its most precious invention. The CSIRO still has in-house legal counsel as all agencies do, but strength comes in numbers, and that force is what Australia’s largest state-sponsored scientific research body is losing.
The tooth-and-nail fight over Wi-Fi represents a stark contrast to one of the CSIRO’s other patentable inventions. An insect repellent, developed for the Queen’s visit to Australia in 1963 by CSIRO scientist Doug Waterhouse, was given away freely after a simple phone call– no patent squabbling or licensing fees. That repellent was reproduced and re-released as Mortein’s Aerogard, which remains an Aussie household name to this day.
Square Kilometre Array Image: Chuck Coker / Flickr
Maybe it would have been more noble to release information into the public domain for entrepreneurs to use, but retaining the rights to something as fundamental as Wi-Fi — even if they didn’t know it was going to be as world-changing as it is now — was a smart move for CSIRO. Plenty of the Wireless LAN patent dollars went back into research, helping scientists work on new groundbreaking projects like the Square Kilometre Array, which will see Aussies gaze up at the sky once again to unlock its many mysteries. It’s oddly appropriate that John O’Sullivan, the team leader on Wireless LAN, is now a key figure in the development of the SKA.
CSIRO’s legal battles aside, the invention of Wi-Fi — or at least the solving of a few complex physics and mathematics problems required to get Wi-Fi up and running for its millions of users — is a story that Australians can be proud of.
Remember it when you’re checking Facebook on your iPad, binging YouTube on your smart TV, or when you’re tapping away at your laptop in your neighbourhood coffee shop.
Lead Image via Shutterstock
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