A History of Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio

Geek Culture

In addition to science fiction, another type of book that I absolutely enjoy reading is of the tech-history variety. Books like Hackers by Steven Levy, Revolution in the Valley (collections of stories and observations about the development of the first Mac computer), Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder (a classic), and Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg have all been enjoyable reads, with lots of behind-the-scenes information on software and hardware developments, both ancient and somewhat current. Getting some of the nitty-gritty details about where our technology came from and what it took to make it happen… I just love learning about this stuff.

I’d like to add a new book to that list, but I must first apologize to the author, Alex Hills, who reached out to me to ask if I’d like to read about the early days of Wi-Fi development in his new book, Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio. It sounded interesting, but I honestly had no clue that Mr. Hills, the author of the book, would figure so prominently in the actual story behind Wi-Fi. I can’t speak for all of you, but this just further impressed upon me how I often take for granted the technology that falls into my lap without giving any thought as to where and how it was developed and by whom.

Mr. Hills has written a 144-page history (of sorts) — his history of early experiences with ham radio and his study of electromagnetic waves and his history developing the technology that would become the Wi-Fi we enjoy today. It’s a fast read, and very personal with lots of details about Hills’ childhood friends, his college years and beyond.

Hills starts out by talking about his early days with amateur (ham) radio and the traditional telegraph key (followed by a faster, more useful Vibroplex device) and how he began his education to obtain his Novice Class amateur radio license and then moved forward with more advanced licenses that required greater skill and a better understanding of radio waves and how one could communicate at certain times (day versus night, for example) with faraway locations. It is this curiosity about radio waves that Hills uses to develop his story and explain how he ended up much later running a team that would develop Wi-Fi. But before he got there, he had to do some more learning at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute along with some serious street-cred obtained by working the school’s radio station, WRPI. More training and education concerning the real-world usage of antennae and radio waves followed, leading up to… Alaska.

Yes, Alaska. The story takes a 90-degree turn as Hills talks about his experiences working at KOTZ, the public radio station serving Eskimo communities. In addition to day-to-day duties, Hills was also tasked with keeping the transmissions of the station going which involved what sounds like a lot of trips for maintenance on the station’s 5,000-watt transmitter. This part of the story was very enjoyable, as Hills has done a great job of helping you understand just how important communication is between the small towns… and how difficult it can be to setup and maintain.

The story spends some time here, talking about weather reports, and Teletype machines and even the 1973 top playlist that includes songs I know… and don’t know. But it’s the personal uses of the station, the Eskimo Stories that were passed along by elders and the old-time radio shows (such as The Shadow and Lone Ranger serials) that really offer up a vivid image of the value of talk, of communication between people scattered across great distances.

One of my favorite sections from the book tells the story of how Hills and a pilot named John Lee would fly to various villages to try to set up and explain the use of long-distance VHF radio telephone service. They would not only have to convince townsfolk of the usefulness, but also call on their knowledge of the surrounding areas to find the best location for placing the receiving antennas. It’s good stuff, and I particularly enjoyed Hills’ recounting of the placement of an antennae close to the Russian border that involved pointing the antennae at the Russian mountains because they could more easily receive a reflected signal (bounced off the mountains). I sure would have liked to know what a Russian observer thought of that unique solution!

I mention that Hills covers the usefulness of a reflected signal, but reflection isn’t always a good thing. And that’s where the title of this book comes – the problems with radio waves that Hills discusses in the book via his stories are the same problems that he refers to as the five bad boys of radio. These include shadowing, reflection, refraction, scattering, and diffraction. Hills does a nice job of not over-complicating the book with a lot of techno-babble, and his explanations of the various bad boys of radio come with examples from his real-life experiences that are easy to follow. He offers up these bad boys of radio because all of them will have some sort of impact later in the book when he and his team begin their testing and prototyping of various Wi-Fi networks.

After leaving Alaska (and getting married), Hills landed a teaching job at Carnegie Mellon. He spends the remainder of the book discussing his various roles at the university and how his on-going interest in radio waves and a simple discussion over lunch about wireless technology would turn into a government-funded project that would involve a partnership with a Dutch technology company and a team that would wander the campus with strange-looking equipment, testing for dead signals, strong signals, and all the in-between strangeness that occurs when data is being sent wirelessly and an attempt is made to retrieve it.

The development of Wi-Fi didn’t happen quickly, and it didn’t happen easily. There were plenty of technical issues, and Hills provides some entertaining stories about his team and how they pushed forward because they wanted CM to have a true, wireless network available to the faculty… and to the students who had managed to hack their way in. (Students were banned from using it, but Hills shares some fun stories about how where there’s a will, there’s a way…)

We all know how the story ends — I’m writing this post right now on my laptop while sitting on the couch, all because Wi-Fi was a huge success. But knowing how the story ends doesn’t take away any of the wonder and enjoyment of reading a first-hand account of how it all came to be. Wi-Fi is everywhere, even at one of my favorite Chinese restaurants… and thanks to Hills and his team at Carnegie Mellon, we have a technology that is (mostly) reliable and that we don’t really have to think much about.

Wi-Fi is definitely a tech that I’ve taken for granted, but now, after reading the story of its development, I have a deeper appreciation for the work that was done in the mid-’90s to make it a reality.

I want to thank Alex Hills for providing a copy of Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio and for answering some questions I put to him regarding the experiences he documents in the book:

GeekDad: One thing I really enjoyed about the book was the non-technical explanations of what are often considered quite complicated technologies. Did you ever consider including more technical content (equations, theories, etc.) or was your intent to provide a story without the advanced math?

Alex Hills: Well, I really wanted the book to appeal to a non-technical audience — including people who would be turned off by even one equation. It’s a challenge to explain technical ideas in a non-technical way, but that’s what I tried to do – to speak to people of all backgrounds. I decided to do that through storytelling. But the Author’s Note at the end of the book guides interested readers to more technical explanations of what they’ve just read.

GD: When I first read the title, I thought it was referring to a group of individuals… geeky rebels. Then I realized early in the book that you were referring to actual radio technical issues. But now I realize that you really did have access to some true geek rebels. The book conveys a sense of fun and adventure during the exploration and testing phases, but I’m curious to know how much enjoyment was actually present during all the prototyping and brainstorming sessions?

AH: Within the Wireless Andrew team we had a great sense of camaraderie. We worked hard, but we really liked each other, and I tried to convey that in the book. I also tried to highlight some of the team members who wouldn’t ordinarily receive much recognition because they’re not well-known professors or managers — Lisa and Mark, for example. You can get a sense of that by checking out the photos of our recent reunion.

You may also be interested in reading http://www.dralexhills.com/wordpress/.

GD: After college, what took you to Alaska in the first place? You mention the adventurous, frontier-aspect of going there, but was it really that simple? Had you ever traveled there before? Why not Arizona or Wyoming? Why Alaska?

AH: Way back in 1970 I had a chance to help build a new radio station in bush Alaska. I had never visited Alaska, and I jumped at the chance. The assignment was supposed to last for one year. But one thing led to another (or maybe my brain cells were frozen :)), and I soon worked on building more bush radio stations, telephone systems, and generally improving telecommunications services in rural Alaska. Later I joined Carnegie Mellon, but I’ve always remained strongly connected to Alaska. (BTW, between college and Alaska, I was a member of a team designing a supercomputer and a US Army Signal Corps officer — a company commander in Korea. Might be another book in there somewhere…)

GD: Is KOTZ still around? Do you have any affiliation with that organization? Are you a celebrity in Alaska now?

AH: KOTZ is still alive and well. It continues much as described in Chapter 2, but it does have its own building now. We put up the new building a few years after the events described in Chapter 2. KOTZ is still a primary source of information, news, and entertainment for the people of northwest Alaska. There are also other public radio stations that play a similar role in other parts of rural Alaska. Celebrity isn’t the word, but people in Alaska know about the work I did building the state’s telecom systems.

GD: When you see the Wi-Fi icon on a storefront window to pull customers indoors, do you flashback to your days at Carnegie Mellon University? What are some of your fondest memories of the research and prototyping and testing of the early days of Wi-Fi? Is there anything you miss from those days?

AH: My fondest memories are working with the Wireless Andrew team, as described in the book and in #3 above.

GD: I believe you left Alaska for graduate school and then work at Carnegie Mellon, but you’ve now ended up back in Alaska, correct? Are you still a researcher or have you changed careers since returning? What are you doing these days to stay busy?

AH: Well, I’m a pretty busy guy these days. I split my time between Alaska, Pittsburgh, and South America. In Pittsburgh, I still hold the position of Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon. In South America, I have a part time faculty job as “Profesor Extraordinario” (correct) at the Universidad Austral de Chile, in the beautiful southern part of Chile. And, in Alaska, I help the University of Alaska by being a volunteer professor and advisor. Along with all of this, I also work with students volunteering to work on humanitarian projects in developing nations. To get a sense of that work, check this out:

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