WiFi – the Australian invention helping the world connect

Wi-Fi technology today is found all over the world, and the means for making it fast and reliable was an Australian invention.

It is the same wireless network technology that allows our phones, computers and other technologies to connect to the internet reliably and at fast speeds.

Today the technology is so widespread there are far, far more Wi-Fi devices than there are human beings; by 2020, there will be close to 40 billion devices worldwide, according to one estimate. 

There are even Wi-Fi connected toasters and sex toys.

Twenty years ago (on January 23, 1996) CSIRO’s patent for a method of creating a fast and reliable Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) was approved in the US.

Since then, the CSIRO has made more than $420 million from the invention (not adjusted for inflation), making it the organisation's best performing commercial enterprise.

But, it has not been a smooth ride for the CSIRO and investors in the technology, with CSIRO having to sue companies that used the technology for royalties since the patent was approved in the US.

What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a marketing term that the CSIRO did not create. Wi-Fi refers to 802.11, which is a family of Wi-Fi specifications.

CSIRO’s US patent was for the method of transmitting messages that Wi-Fi technologies use. All of the CSIRO's patents have now expired.

The term Wi-Fi is commonly thought to mean wireless fidelity.

"Wi-Fi does not mean wireless fidelity," a representative from the Wi-Fi Alliance told SBS News.

The term is a Wi-Fi Alliance registered trademark.

Wi-Fi technology has made networking easier in offices, homes and places of education all over the world.

Wi-Fi, or WLAN, allows our devices to form local connections.

That means you can connect with other devices, including modem-routers, which will connect you to the internet.

A form of electro-magnetic radiation, Wi-Fi waves work completely differently to sound.

Wi-Fi waves have an electric and magnetic aspect, while sound waves work by displacing air. 

This quality enables Wi-Fi waves to work in a vacuum like space.

Today, companies like Facebook and Google are talking about increasing internet access in large parts of isolated African nations by using wireless networking technologies.

CSIRO lists the invention as number one in its top ten inventions.

How does it work?

Making a fast and stable Wi-Fi technology actually works by slowing down the signal transmission speeds.

Radio waves bounce, which is how radar technology works.

That also means receivers can experience reverberation - a kind of interference - meaning the same message will arrive at the receiver at the same time.

Reverberation was a major problem with Wi-Fi solutions at the time of CSIRO's breakthrough.

The existing solutions were much slower in network speed, since slower transmissions helped reduce the reverberation from bouncing radio pulses.

CSIRO’s team consisted of radio astronomers Diet Ostry, Graham Daniels, John Deane, Terry Percival and John O’Sullivan.

What they tried to achieve at the time seemed like a massive increase in wireless network speeds, Doctor John O’Sullivan told SBS News.

"Back when we first started thinking about this, there were networks, but they were 50 or 100 times slower than what we were trying to do," Dr O’Sullivan said.

"One of the parts of our solution was to send a whole lot of bits on different frequencies at a slower rate, so the reverberation doesn’t affect them."

Splitting the signals was comparable to distributing bricks evenly on a truck, to make the load more stable, he said.

Multi-processor computers achieving higher speeds than single processor systems was another useful analogy, he said.

The concept which allowed the CSIRO team to split signals into smaller components and then recombine them at the receiver is drawn on an algorithm called Fast Fourier Transforms. The CSIRO did not invent FFT, but were responsible for the method of using FFT to send and receive signals.

Different people in CSIRO's team had different areas of expertise and Dr O’Sullivan did not claim the breakthrough for himself.

"The beautifully simple way we came to use [FFT] didn’t come from me," he said.

"My interest in some of the underlying technology here was searching for black holes."

He said that search was unsuccessful, but that was not a failure; it disproved a theory and provoked him to consider the wider application of FFT years before the Wi-Fi breakthrough.

What was the issue with patents?

The federal government’s IP Australia website says the process of getting US technology companies to pay for the Wi-Fi technology was not easy.

Products using the 802.11 technology, which relied on the CSIRO’s work, started to enter the market in 2001. The first unlicensed products began to appear in 2002.

In 2007, the CSIRO had a major win in a Texas court. The judge found that CSIRO had grounds for an injunction to bar an infringing company from selling its products. The decision was upheld in further court action.

The litigation continued for years, and involved large companies including Hewlett Packard, Sony, Lenovo and Acer.

In 2012, the CSIRO settled with a number of companies for a sum of $220 million.

The patent, published online on a US government website, has expired – but not before the CSIRO had a windfall from the solution.

Dr O'Sullivan said he was disappointed the patent issue could not have been solved quicker.

"It was certainly a long, protracted effort," Dr O'Sullivan said.

"I think the CSIRO needs to be congratulated for having the staying power."

Is Wi-Fi harmful to your health?

Scary warnings about the effects of electromagnetic radiation are rife on the internet, and even some parts of the media.

If you go searching on Google or another search engine, you’ll be met with a range of articles and information to back up whichever view you have - dangerous or not dangerous.

Some articles that warm of the dangers look convincing.

However, there are some notable names on the not-dangerous side.

The government’s Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency last year said, there was no scientific evidence that exposure to Wi-Fi was harmful to your health. 

The World Health Organisation says something similar.

Those sources are not saying the technology is totally safe; they just say there is no evidence of dangers.

In Australia, Wi-Fi devices are required to be within a frequency range set by the Australian government.