Analía Llorente BBC News World
Excuse me, can you give me the wifi password?
If you have never asked this question or you have never been asked, you are literally logged out. But just in case, let’s start at the beginning.
Wi-Fi, WiFi or simply wifi appeared on the market in 1997.
It is a wireless connection system, in a certain area, between electronic devices and is used to access the internet.
The word originated from the Wi-Fi Alliance organization, but it has become so common that it is now part of the dictionary.
And no, it doesn’t mean anything, according to Phil Belanger, one of the company’s founding members. It is the result of a marketing strategy.
It should be noted that Wi-Fi is based on the IEEE 802.11 standards, a family of wireless standards created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a worldwide association of engineers dedicated to standardization and development in technical fields.
And for nearly 25 years, wifi, through its constant updates, has had a profound impact on the way societies connect.
“Wi-Fi’s biggest impact is equitable access to the internet. Imagine if the world developed only with cellular or satellite, only the rich could afford it,” says Sujit Dey, director of the Center for Wireless Communications from the University of San Diego (USD), California (USA).
Wifi is accessible because it is based on unlicensed spectrum.
“That means nobody controls it, of course, that also means the quality of service is sometimes poor. But since it’s untethered spectrum, as long as you have wired networks, the wifi part is free. This democratizes access. Without wifi, millions and millions of people would have had no access to the internet”, analyzes Professor Dey.
But wifi also has an economic effect.
“It’s several billion dollars a year. It’s a phenomenal impact. I think it’s hard to underestimate the impact of connectivity on people,” Dorothy Stanley, a member of the BBC, tells BBC Mundo. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE SA) Standards Association.
The Wi-Fi Alliance estimates that nearly 18 billion Wi-Fi devices will be in use by 2022.
While the global economic value of Wi-Fi is estimated at $3.3 trillion in 2021. In 2025, it is expected to reach $4.9 trillion, according to a Telecom advisory study.
Wi-Fi has also transformed its users into energetic seekers of more efficient, reliable and secure connectivity, in the face of hybrid or remote work scenarios, complex connectivity systems in homes and businesses, and the Internet of Things (IoT).
In an increasingly connected world, we ask ourselves: what is the future of connectivity, what comes after wifi to access the internet?
It is important to state that although Wi-Fi has rapidly penetrated the developed world over the past two decades, there are still many corners of the planet where this technology does not exist and where there is no internet access.
For example, an estimated 244 million people in Latin America, or one-third of the population, do not have access to the internet, according to a 2021 study by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA ), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Microsoft.
However, after the covid-19 pandemic, connectivity has become a prime need and many technological developments by governments and organizations have sprung up to bring connectivity to remote areas.
“Wi-Fi is not the complete solution there, but it is an important part of the overall solution,” said Dorothy Stanley, head of the IEEE 802.11 standard working group.
She cites examples of remote areas in India and Canada where mixed connectivity systems with satellite, fiber optic and wireless have been implemented.
“If we are talking about the connectivity of the future, I think the short answer is more and better and more ubiquitous, to cover areas that are not covered today”, analyzes the expert while highlighting the efforts of the authorities of Mexico City, which in 2021 received the Guinness World Record for the most connected city in the world thanks to its 21,500 free internet points.
Wi-Fi for a while?
Since the launch of WiFi, standards have continuously evolved, usually improving speed, adding new features or technologies, and a new identifying name.
The 802.11ax, or Wi-Fi 6, standard is the latest evolution launched in 2021. It offers an ultra-fast speed of 9.6 gigabits per second (Gbps) and supports 2.4 gigahertz frequency bands ( GHz), 5 GHz and 6 GHz, as well as wide channels (80, 160 MHz), among other features.
But it is not yet widely available on the market.
And in 2024, engineers are already working on the 802.11be or Wi-Fi 7 standard with enhanced features that promise to be “a major milestone,” according to a June 2022 task force report.
Everything suggests that wifi has no limits.
“We haven’t found it yet and the projection is that there will be a tenfold growth in demand for wifi sources in the next 10 years, so we’re seeing an increasing deployment of wifi,” Stanley says.
“I think we’ll see more wifi. Our goal is to focus on increasing range, performance and backwards compatibility because we want people to use all the devices they’ve ever purchased and in which they invested money,” he adds.
Advancements in wifi are not just about improving speed, but also about allowing many devices to connect at the same time and maintain that speed.
“More and more people want to use multiple types of devices. It’s not just the phone, there’s also the watch, glasses, etc. More and more devices will be connected. Wi-Fi won’t so it just keeps getting better,” Prof Dey told BBC Mundo.
While wifi still has a lot of room for improvement and remains the most stable connectivity technology, there are connectivity alternatives that could complement or even replace it in the future.
“5G is coming to most countries in Europe, the United States and Latin America. The problem is that most 5G deployments were based on 4G, so it will be a few years before we see to a real deployment of 5G”, believes Sujit Dey.
By the end of 2026, 5G is expected to account for around 43% of mobile subscriptions in Latin America, according to research by Ericsson.
But the costs tend to be higher.
“Many people from different demographics cannot afford a 5G plan, so wifi remains the cheaper alternative. But, of course, you can’t bring wifi outside the home, so people 5G plans should be within everyone’s reach”, opines the professor of USD.
It is also possible to transmit data by light.
Harald Haas, professor of mobile communications at the University of Edinburgh, coined the term Li-Fi in 2011, a technology that uses LED lights to transmit data.
The downside of traditional wifi routers is that multiple devices in the same space can interfere with each other.
However, Li-Fi can use multiple lights in a room without interference, claims its creator.
Li-Fi can provide internet access 100 times faster than traditional wifi, delivering speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps).
It requires a light source, such as a standard LED lamp, an internet connection and a photodetector.
For Professor Dey, this type of technology is very effective for indoor spaces, but it requires an additional infrastructure expenditure and is therefore not a cheap solution.
“Imagine an office where you have to put the right reflectors. It has some advantages in terms of speed and level of connectivity, but it has the disadvantage of requiring new infrastructure in general,” he explains.
And then there’s satellite connectivity.
Companies such as Starlink, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, offer high-speed and broadband satellite internet access service in rural and remote areas, for a monthly fee of 110 USD (69,472 FCFA) and a one-time cost of 599 USD (378,230 FCFA) for the material.
“Starlink is an innovative addition to our connectivity portfolio. I believe it has the potential to augment the current deployment of satellites and make this technology perhaps more affordable and widespread,” Stanley said.
However, satellite communication has high latency, which means the delay is longer than that of wifi or cellular.
“To alleviate this problem, some companies have lower orbit satellites and have less lagging issues. Now they are looking to integrate satellite and wifi as well,” says Dey.
“If this integration is successful in the next few years, it won’t just be a few people who will be able to do things remotely. A lot more people will be able to do it because there will be wifi connectivity,” he says.
Professor Dey also highlights Google’s balloon project, as well as some companies that are testing drones to provide connectivity.
“I think the best connection will be by air, because the cost of infrastructure is much lower,” he warns.
“You can access areas where there is no optical fiber, especially in underdeveloped countries that have the will to become more developed,” he explains.
The connectivity of the future
It is clear that there are multiple technologies that are currently being tested and will be used in the future to connect.
“There is no single technology that covers everything. The demand for connectivity is such that we have to bring all the pieces together, put the products together and bring them to market in order to meet the needs of people, wherever they are. , to be connected,” says Stanley.
“Our vision for the future is for everyone to be connected,” he bets.
For Professor Dey, the connectivity landscape will change dramatically in the next 10 to 20 years. That’s why “connectivity should be a birthright in this foray into the modern era.”
“Because we can’t do anything constructive without connectivity,” he concludes.