Wireless broadband brings together two main technologies. One is the Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) that delivers high-speed (more than 256 kilobits per second) Internet connectivity. This is the ‘broadband’ part. The other is the Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) that makes this broadband service accessible without using cables. Most of us call this ‘Wi-Fi’.
Over less than two decades these two technologies have developed to make Wireless Broadband accessible to almost everyone, everywhere. Currently, there are over 27,000 searches for wireless broadband in Australia in Google every month and people trust various suppliers for different wireless features. Companies such as iiNet.net.au offer different wireless broadband packages to suit each requirement.
In the beginning, connecting to the Internet meant using a modem (modulator/demodulator) that turned digital data into sound to allow it to be transmitted down a phone line. Modem speeds started out at 32Kb/s (kilobits per second) in the late 1980s and reached 256Kb/s by the late ‘90s.
At this time, ‘high speed internet’ meant using ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) lines that made phone lines capable of carrying both voice and digital data in 64KB/s ‘packets’. If you wanted to shift data really fast (at 128KB/s!), you could use the whole line. But essentially, phone lines couldn’t even keep up with modem speeds.
DSL was the answer. This also uses modems at both ends of the line, but ones that can translate digital data into very high frequency carrier waves to travel along a twisted pair copper phone line alongside voice traffic. One modem is the Digital subscriber line access multiplexer (DSLAM) at the phone exchange; the other is inside your DSL router.
There are now nearly 20 different flavours of DSL, collectively called ‘xDSL’. Typical download speeds have grown from under 1000 megabits per second (MB/s) to more than 10MB/s. They’ve also availability from just a mile or two from the exchange to five miles or more.
Wi-Fi is the trade name of the Wi-Fi Alliance trade organisation, which certifies the specific 802.11 wireless networking standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). The standards have developed over the last 17 years:
1997: 802.11 Legacy – this was the initial standard that could carry about 2Mbps of data and was never really used.
1999: 802.11a and 802.11b were released at the same time. While 802.11a was fasted (up to 54MB/s), 802.11b was cheaper, had much longer range and was better at working through walls, etc. So it became the popular choice.
2003: 802.11g emerged on the market, attempting to combine the best of 802.11a and 802.11b. It was faster and had longer range, but cost more and was vulnerable to signal interference.
2009: 802.11n was designed to increase bandwidth (up to 100 MB/s) by using multiple wireless signals and antennas (called MIMO technology). Backward compatible with 802.11g but not 802.11b
Soon: 802.11ac and 802.11ad are standards now under development. The latter, also called WiGig, is being supported by major manufacturers, offers up to 7GB/s and is expected to reach the market sometime in early 2014.