Happy 25th Anniversary, Wi-Fi – News

Happy 25th Anniversary, Wi-Fi – News

31 October 2022

The Wireless Andrew initiative and Carnegie Mellon University researchers laid the foundation for today’s wireless local area networks

Just two years after the first wireless networking protocol—called IEEE 802.11—was first adopted in 1997, Carnegie Mellon University became the first university to offer high-speed wireless Internet access across campus.

Alex Hills vividly remembers how CMU students went wireless long before colleagues at other universities.

“CMU’s Wireless Andrew was the precursor to what we now know as Wi-Fi,” said Hills, a distinguished service professor of engineering and public policy and the first director of CMU’s Information Networking Institute (INI).

INI received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for wireless research in the early 1990s, and as principal investigator Hills launched the Wireless Andrew initiative, with the help of then-INI director Ben Bennington and Computing Services’ Charles Bartel, who received his master’s degree from the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy in 1995.

In its earliest days, CMU’s first wireless network covered a portion of Wean Hall – for wireless researchers only. It was password protected so as not to interfere with the research.

“CMU students are smart and pretty soon they were hacking their way onto the network. It wasn’t long before we had more students than researchers using it. That was my first hint of the demand for anytime, anywhere internet,” Hills said.

INI students participated in Wireless Andrew research and helped Computing Services implement plans and conduct testing. The students later helped Hills develop a measurement tool to help others design their own wireless networks. It eventually became a commercial product called Site Scout.

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Hands-on learning was as integral to CMU programs then as it is today.

This fall, a student team in INI’s bicoastal graduate programs is prototyping a wireless network-based solution for an internship project, sponsored by Honda Development and Manufacturing of America.

“The Honda project explores how idle, connected devices can share their computing resources using peer-to-peer communication. A blockchain network will act as a distributed ledger to maintain transactions,” said Cynthia Kuo, an INI associate professor of practice. Kuo coordinates industry-sponsored internship projects and connects them with students, such as Yukun Li, a master’s candidate in mobile and Internet of Things engineering.

“This is very exciting because we can put what we learned about peer-to-peer networks, blockchain and distributed systems in a traditional classroom setting into action with real impact. What is more unique about the practice is that this exploratory project has us in responsible for system design and tool selection while communicating with our customers to meet their needs. This is an incredible way to learn how real technology teams work and make decisions – through experience and action,” said Li.

Alex Hills during a book signing
Hills signs copies of his book.

Wireless research has flourished at CMU for decades. As Wi-Fi turns 25, its applications touch every aspect of modern life, from cars to phone apps.

Hills, who chronicled the Wireless Andrew initiative in the book “Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio,” is now working on low-Earth orbit satellite technology that promises to bring broadband service to people living in unserved areas anywhere in the world.

“At CMU, we solve problems. We take an interdisciplinary approach, create innovative work and use hands-on experience,” Hills said.

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