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IEEE 802 Committee Looks Back And Forward At 30 Years
by Evan Koblentz - March 10, 2010
Few technology industry standards impact modern society as much as data networking. That's why the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers will celebrate the IEEE 802 LAN/MAN Standards Committee's 30th birthday next week with a panel discussion, web site, and enthusiasm for several emerging standards that could further change the world.
Companies such as DEC, HP, IBM, Intel, and Xerox began crystallizing the idea for an IEEE data communications committee in the late 1970s. The committee officially opened in March 1980 with Tektronix engineer Maris Graube as chairman. Its work in spanning three decades now reaches "from the local coffee shop to the International Space Station," current chairman Paul Nikolich notes.
Graube represented Tektronix's interests for the IEEE 488 General Purpose Interface Bus and quickly realized its limitations. "I was asking the question, 'Why doesn't somebody do something that's a little bit longer distance?'," he says. He saw a proprietary system used at Purdue University and then petitioned the IEEE for a new committee. Another early inspiration was the work of Hewlett-Packard's Don Loughry, he adds.
"It was kind of obvious in a sense that if suddenly there was a standard... then all these instruments could be put together in systems," Graube recalls. IEEE 802's first Ethernet standard matriculated in 1983, though without support from Ethernet co-inventor Bob Metcalfe. "He came to a couple of our meetings and denounced that standards are contrary to innovation," Graube says. "To me it doesn't matter a whole lot how it got done, as long as it does get done."
"Standardized high speed networking from IEEE 802, especially Ethernet, was a major driver for the generic personal computer as a communications tool. That foundation paved the way for wireless networking standards and the ubiquitous high speed networking that we now have for laptops and other portable devices," adds Geoff Thompson, chairman of the 802 Emergency Services Executive Committee Study Group, and the de facto IEEE 802 historian as appointed by Nikolich.
Thompson speaks from experience: he worked at Xerox's famed Palo Alto Research Center from 1973-1981, serving under Gary Starkweather, inventor of the laser printer, which became one of the first applications using their colleague Metcalfe's design. "The fact that we have this communication on a vendor independent basis, something that was not true in the 1970s before IEEE 802, is proof of our success," he says.
Nikolich joined the committee six years later as a member of the 802.3 Ethernet Working Group -- "A lowly scrub working on 10BaseT," he jokes -- and moved up to chairman in 2001.
WiFi and Bluetooth later joined Ethernet as some of IEEE 802's smash hits, but not all were instant, nor as successful.  Nikolich cites WiFi, from the 802.11 Wireless Local Area Networks group, which began in 1990. "They toiled away for about 8 years before they produced a baseline standard," he recalls. Other efforts simply flamed out, such as the ultrawideband group, 802.15 Wireless Personal Area Networks, involving two competing camps that failed to reach concensus and ultimately withdrew their project. Network management was another example of complicated technology that never reached standardization, the founder Graube adds.
IEEE 802 is also a bellwether for industry trends. Nikolich says there are several recent and emerging working groups that may strongly influence mobile enterprise communications. An example is 802.11AD which provides for gigabit WiFi and will be available starting in 2013 with sub-6 GHz and 60 GHz versions. Sub-6 GHz is useful for business and industrial applications because of its especially strong signals, but it requires overhead such as encoding, interference rejection, MIMO antennas, and multilevel modulation. Conversely, the 60 GHz version will be ideal for consumer use and small offices because it's easy to build, but its signals are literally subject to oxygen absorption.
Enterprise-worthy applications also stem from ongoing 802.15 projects applicable to RFID and smart grids, along with 802.16 projects for the WiMax standard, Nikolich says.
However the most far-out ideas in his committee are 802.15.6, Body Area Networks, and 802.15.7, Visible Light Communication. The former could be used for nano-scale transceivers embedded inside pills that patients swallow, and the latter for data networks performing high-rate modulation of light waves as the physical layer. That would operate in an unlicensed terahertz range and be immune to electrical interference as long as there aren't windows in the vicinity.
Such advanced standards and applications show how easy it is to get caught up in the future without considering the past. Nikolich will moderate a panel discussion, "The impact of 802 on society at present and future," during the committee's plenary session on March 14 in Orlando. "The people that have contributed their time and intellectual property to this process has been incredible over the last 30 years," he says. Following the panel, there will be an online exhibit including pictures, a timeline, and a public comments section through the IEEE site along with a Facebook page that's already open.
Editor's note: Bob Metcalfe did not reply to our request for an interview today, but did reply to Graube's assertions in our discussion forum.  Click here
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