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July 28: Carnegie Mellon's Wireless Innovations Lead To Development Of Popular Wi-Fi Tools For a Mobile Global Workforce


Chriss Swaney                 

Carnegie Mellon's Wireless Innovations Lead To Development
Of Popular Wi-Fi Tools For a Mobile Global Workforce

PITTSBURGH-Wi-Fi permeates our lives. We use it in airports to read our email, in coffee shops to watch the latest video news clips, and at home to hear a favorite singer's new tunes. And Wi-Fi is just beginning to convert our airline seats to remote offices at 35,000 feet. Wi-Fi is everywhere.

It all began 15 years ago at Carnegie Mellon University, where managing along the cutting edge is the norm, and where a mixture of ingenuity and guile helped the world rethink the Internet.
Every time you peddle a new cake flavor over the Internet to a friend or browse eBay, it's because a collection of university researchers with clamorous vitality wanted their work to burst from the lab into homes and offices worldwide.

The leader of this unpretentious Internet revolution was Alex Hills, a raw bundle of nervous energy with a sense of purpose and certainty that is unmistakable. Like a high-speed sunrise, Hills burst onto the computing scene with a wireless research initiative that would ultimately lay the foundation for today's Wi-Fi computing environment, a wireless network that connects laptops and PDAs to the Internet.

"The challenges in building large wireless networks are significant," said Hills, a distinguished service professor at Carnegie Mellon and former chief information officer for the university. "We developed ways to design networks capable of handling any kind of user community."

Carnegie Mellon has many years of experience designing and building these networks. In fact, the university built the first such network anywhere, long before the Wi-Fi standard was adopted. Carnegie Mellon's network is called "Wireless Andrew" for university benefactors Andrew Carnegie and Andrew Mellon.

Started in 1994 as a National Science Foundation-funded research network to support Carnegie Mellon's wireless research initiative, Wireless Andrew originally provided coverage in seven campus buildings, but it was expanded in 1999 to serve all 65 residential, academic and administrative buildings on the Pittsburgh campus, with a total floor area of approximately 3-million-square-feet as well as outside areas.

So, strip away the highfalutin talk, and at the bottom is Carnegie Mellon's wireless network that has dramatically changed the face of Internet communication. It has radically altered any industry or activity that depends heavily on the flow of information.

Over the coming decades, the Wireless Andrew infrastructure created at Carnegie Mellon will continue to be the research seedling that starts wireless networking for everything from linking supply chains for speedy product turnarounds to storing employee expertise so that co-workers can tap into ready-made knowledge instead of starting from scratch.

And given the crucial role of communication and information, the long-term impact of Carnegie Mellon's Wireless Andrew initiative could boost the rate of innovation by increasing the speed at which ideas spread between businesses, within economies and across countries. The little technology that cropped up in the labs at Carnegie Mellon is now an essential part of every business and consumer toolkit. There are a few breakthrough technologies that have altered our lives over the last 200 years, and Carnegie Mellon's early wireless work deserves a place in this august group.


Video: Distinguished service professor Alex Hills, who led the building of Wireless Andrew, tells the story of its creation.