Here at 105.5 WDHA on the Jersey Magazine.
JIM MONAGHAN – Maybe one of the worst things you can hear right now, whether it’s at home or it’s at work, is “The Wi-Fi’s down!” And I have with me this morning Greg Ennis. He’s the author of a brand new book, Beyond Everywhere – How Wi-Fi Became the World’s Most Beloved Technology. Greg, good morning, and welcome to WDHA.
GREG ENNIS – Good morning, Jim. Good to be here.
JM – The book is a wonderful read and it’s got all kinds of things in it, like corruption in the Chicago Board of Trade, an FBI sting, corporate mergers, a foreign government trying to shut you out, a LOT of money at stake…. When they make the film, who plays you?
GE – Oh, I think Matt Damon.
JM – Because I can see this turning into a movie. Have you been approached yet about it?
GE – Not yet, but we’ll see what happens. It’s been a fun ride. The backstory behind Wi-Fi is, I think, way more surprising and dramatic than people would expect. And so I’ve known for quite a while that this is a story that needs to be told and that it needs to be told to a broad, general audience because it’s something that everybody uses, it’s something that everybody enjoys and depends on, but people don’t know where it came from. And the story of how that happened is really quite interesting. So I’m hoping that people enjoy the book.
JM – And how did you get involved in all of this?
GE – Well, I was an engineer in Silicon Valley working on computer networks. I worked for a company back in the 80’s that essentially was developing the first cable modems that companies like Comcast, et cetera, now use for providing Internet access to millions of people. But that kind of got me into that general technology area. And I got involved in I guess my first big wireless project was with the Chicago Board of Trade. That’s the opening chapter of the book, where there was a network that was mandated to be installed by the Federal Government as a result of a sting operation that forced the Chicago commodity trading floors to switch over from their kind of fraud-prone, manual way of doing business to a network of wireless handheld terminals. And I was involved in that project, as were some others, and many of the ideas that came out of that project ended up ultimately finding their way into Wi-Fi. So that’s actually the first chapter of the book is about this FBI sting operation.
JM – When I look back, I think as a kid I used to watch that Dick Tracy cartoon and he had that two-way wrist radio. And this is back in the 60’s and you’re thinking, “Boy, wouldn’t that be great?” We have it now. We have that kind of technology with Wi-Fi. In fact, there are at least – I’m at home right now doing this interview – and there are three devices int he house right now that are using Wi-Fi. Obviously, our radio station, we have Wi-Fi throughout the building. My wife was a teacher, and her world literally changed overnight. Teachers were forced to kind of reinvent the way they did their job in about two weeks because she was doing everything virtually. How much of this is a natural progression, this whole Wi-Fi thing, from just turning on the radio as a kid when you can pick up a signal from halfway across the country?
GE – Yeah. So Wi-Fi uses radio waves just like radio stations, but they are very low power radio waves that are suitable for use in homes and offices and factories, local environments, as opposed to the wide environments that, say, a cellular phone would support. But the reason why this happened was that the FCC started this experiment back in the 80’s to allow these types of low power devices to operate without getting a license. And the cellular companies and radio stations, they all require a license. But Wi-Fi, this FCC experiment basically deregulated a certain portion of the airwaves to allow these types of devices. And that’s an experiment that has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, right? I mean, 18 billion devices, Wi-Fi devices out in the world right now, 4 billion are sold additionally every year. So it’s just been a tremendous, you know, thank you to the FCC for taking that radical step back then.
JM – How much of an obstacle was the FCC? I mean, we deal with them at the radio station, obviously on a regular basis, but how much government agencies getting involved, how much did that hinder you or help you, as the case may have been?
GE – Well, it certainly helped. I mean, it set the stage for this entire technology revolution. And by and large, the FCC recognizes that Wi-Fi is a critical part of our economy. It’s something that people depend on, and its usage needs to be expanded. And so they’re continuing. In fact, they just recently deregulated some additional portions of the airwaves to allow Wi-Fi to have more capacity.A nd what we’re seeing, one of the exciting things that’s happening right now is sports stadiums are installing this new generation of Wi-Fi that supports very dense environments with tens of thousands of fans in the stands. And they want to be looking at their instant replay videos. They want to be sending their little video snippets to their friends who aren’t in the stadium with them. And the cellular technology has a real difficulty dealing with that kind of an intense, dense environment. But Wi-Fi, this new generation of Wi-Fi is perfect for that. So all the sports stadiums are putting in this stuff, and it’s going to be great for the fans and also to support rock concerts, right? People want that same kind of thing for rock concerts and other events at these venues.
JM – We just had Metallica in for two nights here in New Jersey, and members of our staff and our listeners were sharing video left and right. We’re speaking with Greg Ennis this morning. He’s the author of a brand new book, Beyond Everywhere How Wi-Fi Became the World’s Most Beloved Technology. You were part of the team that developed the foundation of the Wi-Fi standard. Looking back, what would you say was the big breakthrough when you knew you had it?
GE – So I developed a technical specification along with two co-authors that, like you say, the industry adopted that work that we had done as the foundation for what became the Wi-Fi standard. And the big breakthrough there was just getting the personalities together. It’s a people story, right? It’s not a technology story. It’s a story about how the three of us kind of warily approached each other and we were a little bit shy about whether we should be doing this or not. But the companies we were working for supported our efforts. So we ultimately ended up being able to put together this specification. And it was a competitive process. I mean, IBM had a competing proposal and our proposal ended up winning the day. But the whole book is really a story about the people behind this technology and all the struggles and all the joyous fun that we had as we were developing this and watching it explode across the universe.
JM – You mentioned in the book that all technology has a lifespan. What do you think is Wi-Fi’s lifespan, Greg?”
GE – Yeah, I don’t think Wi-Fi is going away anytime soon. It’s difficult to replace a technology like Wi-Fi. It’s a protocol between devices and it’s in, like I said, 18 billion devices. I mean, you can’t just hit a reboot buttona nd have everybody switch over to something different. And so protocols have a very long lifetime. Believe it or not, things have been enhanced, but we are still basically using the same protocols on the Internet for basic internet transmission that were developed back in the 70’s. Because once a language like this gets established and gets incorporated into all these different devices, it’ll continue to be enhanced, but it’s not going to be replaced by anything anytime soon.
JM – I mentioned when we started that one of the worst things you can hear in the house or at work is the Wi-Fi is down. When the Wi-Fi goes down in your house, what do you do?
GE – So typically the Wi-Fi doesn’t go down. Typically what goes down is my Internet connection to my Internet service provider. The Wi-Fi is typically there and I think people tend to use the word Wi-Fi as a synonym for the Internet and often they don’t quite recognize what it is that is causing the problem. But at least in my experience, it’s typically my Internet Service Provider, not my Wi-Fi network that is going down. And I, just like everybody else, I wait for it to come back up.
JM – Yeah, we’re unplugging things and plugging things back in left and right when that happens. The book is called Beyond Everywhere – How Wi-Fi Became the World’s Most Beloved Technology. You can find out all things about Greg Ennis on his website at gregennis.net. Greg, thank you so much for your time this morning here on WDHA and the Jersey magazine. The book is a wonderful read. Best of luck with it.
GE – Thank you, Jim. It was fun.