Paving the Airwaves for Wi-Fi

Way before the public caught wind of high-speed wireless networks, Vic Hayes was developing standards that allowed the revolution to occur

Vic Hayes is often regarded as the "father of Wi-Fi." And like the instigators of most tech breakthroughs, he earned his stripes thanks to both luck and good timing. After gaining an electrical-engineering degree in his native Netherlands, Hayes was supposed to start a mandatory 24 months of military service as a Dutch Air Force private. But at his psychological examination, he so impressed his interviewers that at the last moment, they decided he was officer material. This allowed Hayes to get special training in radar and radio technology, subjects that have stuck with him with ever since.

Hayes has made his name not by inventing new technologies but by standardizing them. He started such work in 1974 when he joined NCR Corp., now part of semiconductor components maker Agere Systems (AGRA ). He was asked to help develop industrywide standards so NCR's terminals for stockbrokers could connect seamlessly via telecommunications lines with similar machines made by other suppliers.

Hayes met that challenge -- along the way creating many of the protocols that govern the Internet today, such as the method by which e-mail travels from sender to recipient. Pleased with his work, his bosses asked him to develop standards for equipment from different suppliers that are used in wireless local-area networks (WLANs).


  That was obscure work in the late 1980s and early '90s. Not only did WLANs from different suppliers not communicate, they were expensive. The special committee of the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE), which was supposed to develop international standards for the technology, was practically inactive -- until Hayes became its chairman in 1990.

He rounded up experts from other companies -- and within several years the committee's membership ballooned to hundreds. "He has a passion for Wi-Fi, and he got others excited about it as well," says Dennis Eaton, chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance, an industry association that assures interoperability between Wi-Fi equipment. In 1996, the committee released its first WLAN standard –- 802.11 -- which has since become known as simply Wi-Fi. As part of that process, the group reviewed different corporations' technologies and fine-tuned them to arrive at the standard.

Wi-Fi has since come into its own, pushing down the price of everything from Web access to WLAN gear and starting a communications revolution. "The standards, which wouldn't have been produced without Hayes, established credibility for Wi-Fi," says Craig Mathias, founder of wireless consultancy Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass.


  Today, Wi-Fi, which stands for wireless fidelity, allows anyone with a laptop and a wireless card to connect to the Web at high speeds in thousands of hotels, airports, and Starbucks (SBUX ) cafés nationwide. Individuals have created tens of thousands of other Wi-Fi "hot spots" around the country -- and anyone with the right wireless card who's within 300 feet of them can piggyback for free. WLAN equipment suppliers will generate $1.67 billion in revenue in 2003, up from about $1.25 billion last year, according to Allied Business Intelligence, a technology research think tank in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

This is just the beginning. "I see Wi-Fi being used for everything" eventually, says Hayes. Within 5 to 10 years, he predicts, Wi-Fi connection speeds should increase from the current average of 54 megabits per second to hundreds of megabits, thus enabling nifty applications such as real-time video streaming in homes, he says. Users would be able to download movies from satellite or cable feeds, store them on a shared hard drive, and stream them onto TV screens around the house.

Wi-Fi networks could also eventually be used to make phone calls, Hayes believes. Some tech outfits already are working on the early versions of such systems. Calls sent via a Wi-Fi network would be cheap as they would be routed through the Internet instead of over the phone companies' dedicated lines.


  Much remains to be done before that can happen, and Hayes, at 61, isn't letting up on his work. Now a senior scientist at Agere, he stopped presiding over the IEEE committee in 2000, after serving as long as the group's charter allows. He now heads the regulatory subcommittee at the Wi-Fi Alliance, which works with governments worldwide to make sure they allocate the same spectrum for Wi-Fi communications. Today, the U.S., Europe, and Japan allocate different amounts of spectrum for these networks. As a result, people who use Wi-Fi in the U.S. might have to reconfigure their Wi-Fi card or purchase a new one to be able to use Wi-Fi in Europe.

Hayes hopes to iron out these wrinkles within a year -- and chances are he'll succeed. Last year, the Chinese government was considering limiting the power output of Wi-Fi networks to one-tenth of maximum. That would have increased interference and limited the networks' coverage, forcing corporations in China to deploy many more access points. Hayes flew to Beijing, where he says he persuaded government officials to back off. "My work is more political and diplomatic now," he notes.

Indeed, "I'm too busy to experiment with Wi-Fi," Hayes laughs. At home, he has a server connected to a Wi-Fi network. But mostly, he uses it to get on Agere's extranet and keep up with his work rather than for testing out new Wi-Fi applications. He leaves that to the rest of the world.

By Olga Kharif in Portland, Ore.

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