Twenty-three years ago I was recruited to a job – not my current one – and my prospective employer sold me on it by mentioning “this thing called IEEE 802.11™.”

“You will not have heard of it,” my new employer said. “We want you to do a quick and dirty implementation because we're not sure of its market relevance.”

What a difference a couple of decades make!

Today, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we all see the huge impact made by the IEEE 802.11™ Standard and its family of enhancements. We all expect to be connected no matter where we go, and IEEE 802.11 enables that connectivity effectively and efficiently.

Economically, the IEEE 802.11 family produces huge value – something on the order of billions of dollars a year in the United States’ economy alone. More than half of data communicated by mobile devices is over IEEE 802.11.

Of course, IEEE 802.11 is the technology, Wi-Fi is the brand. In some ways, the difficulty for us talking about IEEE 802.11 is that people recognize the brand, not the technology, though they are one and the same. Still, as the joke goes, a lady walks into a bar sporting a sign, “Free Wi-Fi.” She says, “May I have a glass of the free Wi-Fi, please?”

I offer this personal angle on the success of the IEEE 802.11 family to illustrate to readers the potential for your work in the standards arena to have huge impacts on the world around us – and, not incidentally, on your career. Quite simply, standards are a great place to work. You meet great people. You travel to cool locations. You get to stand up and debate and defend your ideas. You collaborate with colleagues across company boundaries. The open process means you have a chance of influencing the standard. For engineers, it’s incredibly satisfying to say, “I had a hand in creating that.” Standards sit right at the top of the food chain, in terms of influencing products that will be made a few years hence.

The story of IEEE 802.11 is indeed an inspiring one, thus it is well worth commemorating its 25th anniversary, as IEEE is doing this year. Our core success with IEEE 802.11 has been providing local network connectivity, which has become an immensely popular feature at the edge of wide-area telecom networks that support the Internet.

Another attractive attribute of IEEE 802.11 is that it’s essentially plug-and-play. You might have to configure a network name but, generally, it just works. And if your neighbor at the next table logs on to a Wi-Fi network, your connection doesn't stop working. Wi-Fi has that kind of resilience and robustness. Nobody's in control. Nobody manages it. It has the built-in intelligence to know how to cope with a large number of connections. It “degrades gracefully” as more and more devices are added. That is, as myriad devices are added to the network, everyone’s connection might slow down a bit, but it still just works.

For those of you who use Wi-Fi, but may be too young or aren’t yet involved in IEEE’s standards process, a bit of history is in order. After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened the 2.4-2.5 GHz spectrum for use for individual and non-licensed applications in the late 1980s, IEEE recognized the need for a standard that fulfilled the demand for wireless communications and networking infrastructure. Work began on creating such a standard in September 1990, and the first approved and adopted version of IEEE 802.11 was published and made available in June 1997. When work to develop IEEE 802.11 started, the goal was to develop interoperable wireless standards reaching a data rate of over 1 megabit per second. 

Twenty five years later, the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LAN Working Group is crafting a series of IEEE 802.11 enhancements, such as IEEE P802.11ax™ to meet the new challenges of dense wireless LAN deployments, including stadiums, shopping malls and densely populated locations.  This enhancement has the goal of providing a more than 10,000-fold increase over the standard’s initial data rate. In fact, work is underway on a wide variety of wireless LAN enhancements, including precise indoor location, faster connection setup, much higher data rates and utilization of the 900 MHz unlicensed band.

The IEEE 802.11 working group is also pursuing enhancements that make more efficient use of radio spectrum, advanced data security measures, quality of service over the air interface and a special regional extensions for China, in order to meet their regulatory requirements for short-range radio equipment.

Thus the already universal IEEE 802.11 Standard continues to push the boundaries of innovation 25 years after its birth. Perhaps you too will join the effort. Looking back, I can say unequivocally that it worked for me.  

Be part of the conversation and share your IEEE 802.11 experience on twitter using #IEEE802.11.