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Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen.
Downtown Reflections. Photograph by Brian Cohen. | Show Photo

Innovation

How Wi-Fi got its start on the campus of CMU, a true story

Back in the primitive days of the '90s, before Wi-Fi was a word, Carnegie Mellon professor Alex Hills and a team of student researchers built the first wireless Internet network in the world. 
 
This fascinating and little known story is the subject of a new book, "Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio," published this month by Dog Ear Publishing.  It's the account of how Hills, with the help of his team and overseas colleagues, overcame major obstacles to create the world's first wireless campus at CMU, an unfathomable idea in 1993. 
 
Hills hopes to set the record straight about the early history of the network that changed lives forever, recalling the bygone days when the Internet was first gaining popularity, email was painfully slow and cell phones were heavier than phone books. 
 
The first network was called "Wireless Andrew," a prototype that established Wi-Fi as a viable online networking system.   
 
"A lot of people out there are taking credit (for Wi-Fi)," admits Hills. "Success has many fathers, as they say."
 
The wireless network, using a local area network (LAN), was born from the creation of a "test bed" for researchers at CMU, a wireless system that allowed researchers to share information, initially on just a few floors of several buildings. Concerned that the network would crash if it was available to too many users, researchers installed security measures to keep the public out. The students hacked into the network anyway, says Hills.
 
"This was my first clue that we were onto something that had big appeal," he says. "CMU students are the early adopters of anything new. If they wanted it, it was a sure sign that this was going to be really big. It made us get serious about what we were doing."
 
While other universities were working on wireless at the time, especially cellular wireless, only CMU had  a working network, says Hills. Early adopters came to CMU to see how it worked. The project, completed in 1993, was funded by the National Science Foundation.
 
In addition to his work at CMU, Hill has 11 patents on inventions and is well-known in Alaska where he helped to establish public radio stations and telecommunication across the state. He never made any money from his early work with Wi-Fi.
 
"I hope people will learn from this how technological innovation happens," he says. "Some have the idea you go into your garage, file a patent and get rich. It's a lot of trial and failure. I tried to make the book entertaining, so it tells a story. It's not for technologists, but for anyone who likes to read, with a big emphasis on the story that I have to tell."

The book is available online and through the CMU bookstore.
 
Writer: Deb Smit
Source: Alex Hills, CMU

Image courtesy of Alex Hills
 
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