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Global innovators since the 1990s

Did you know wireless local area network (the technology WiFi uses) was invented in Australia? Through this CSIRO invention, the Australian Government delivered digital transformation that changed the world. Our first instance of digital transformation in government (DTIG)?

Salsa Digital 16 January 2017

Welcome back

Welcome back to our DTIG series. We thought we’d kick off the series for 2017 with a little nostalgia, a story that traces all the way back to the 1990s.

It’s a story worth telling…perhaps worthy of more than a blog (!) but it’s also a story that might not be widely known or maybe it’s just been forgotten. Obviously the summary gave away the punchline… Australia invented and patented wireless local network (WLAN), the basis of WiFi.

The breakthrough

Back in the 1990s, many organisations around the world were trying to work out how to replace wires with waves so people could use the internet untethered. However the problem was reverberation (when the waves bounce off objects, ultimately blocking the wireless signal from getting through). A CSIRO team led by Dr John O’Sullivan found the solution, using advanced knowledge of radio waves and some pretty fancy mathematics called Fourier Algorithms, which allowed multiple smooth waves to be sent instead of the normal ‘spiky’ wave. These waves are reflected in the universal symbol for WiFi.

WiFi2.jpg

The inventors/scientists in the ground-breaking CSIRO team were Dr John O’Sullivan, Dr Terry Percival, Mr Diet Ostry, Mr Graham Daniels and Mr John Deane. The technology was patented in Australia in 1992 and America in 1996.

WLAN and WiFi

The two terms are often used interchangeably but officially, WiFi is a type of WLAN, one that uses the IEEE 802.11 (IEEE stands for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers).

Patent controversy

Like any good story, the history (birth) of WiFi is not without its controversy. According to Wikipedia, WiFi actually uses a number of patents by different organisations (suggesting the CSIRO did not ‘invent’ WiFi, although it does refer to the CSIRO patent as one of the ‘key’ patents for WiFi). However, in April 2009 14 companies settled out of court in the US, paying the CSIRO $250 million for patent infringements. In 2012 the CSIRO won a further $220 million for patent infringement and the rights to ‘royalties’ worth potentially $1 billion. While some articles from the time applaud the settlements, others are more negative, one even labelling the CSIRO as ‘patent trolls’. Not surprisingly, it’s mostly the Australian media applauding CSIRO’s patent wins and the US media with the more negative spin.

The patent has now expired, but the settlements are definitely big wins for the CSIRO, the Australian Government and Australian innovation.

Salsa Digital’s take

We love stories of digital transformation, and no doubt like many other Aussie tech companies, we’re proud of this little bit of Australian history. It’s hard to imagine a world without WiFi — it’s everywhere, an all-pervading presence. WiFi has also been the launching pad for so much innovation in the past, and much, much more to come. For example, WiFi signals are used in many of the smart city innovations. Innovative uses of WiFi technology will continue to leverage the monumental digital transformation brought to us by the CSIRO’s invention.

More info?

If you’d like more info and to see the ‘spread’ of opinions on this, check out these links:

CSIRO: Bringing WiFi to the world

CSIRO: wireless LANs

Sydney Morning Herald: How Australia’s top scientist earned millions from WiFi

The Age: CSIRO to reap ‘lazy billion’ from world’s biggest tech companies

SBS: WiFi — the Australian invention helping the world connect

ArsTechnica: How the Aussie government “invented WiFi” and sued its way to $430 million

APC: WiFi patent has turned CSIRO money mad

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