By Betheny Rogers
Published January 17, 2017
Wireless communication may be the single greatest innovation of the 20th century. Communication without wires exists in nearly all modern forms of technology; from the remote control of a television to the ubiquitous smartphone. Understanding wireless communication has become increasingly vital to all professions. Employers now expect that their employees to be able to solve simple wireless problems, such as disconnecting and reconnecting the WiFi to reset access to the internet. This description aims to break down the wider field of wireless communication into simpler, easily digestible terms.
The broadest definition of wireless communication is the transfer of data between ports which are not connected via wires. Information is transmitted by a sender, sent through a channel, and is interpreted by a receiver. Therefore, there must be at least two ports but, in actuality, the number of ports can be immeasurable. Consider the car radio, which receives data from miles away and is broadcast to every vehicle on the road. Information (the audio of a radio host or a song) is transmitted by the sender (the radio station) and is interpreted by an individual radio in the car (sound flows out of the speakers).
Wireless communication is more cost-effective than wired communication because it does not require the same infrastructure. Other advantages include the convenience of not having to be physically connected to another device and the ability to be in constant communication with the outside world. A smartphone, in particular, enables users to conduct numerous transactions which once required a landline phone or else having to actually go to a bank, store, or library to acquire services, goods and information, respectively.
History of Wireless Communication
The history of wireless communication consists mainly of the study of electricity and electromagnetism. As early as 1795 (Salazar-Palma M., 2010), scientists dreamed of ways for communicating across great distances using electricity. However, wireless communication was not truly feasible until the mid-to-late 1800s. Innovations came in the form of wireless telegraphy (telegrams that did not require miles of cables to send a transmission) and radio-controlled boats (the course of a tiny boat was set by the individual with the transmitter device on the shore). However, these had no practical use to the average person.
Starting in the early 20th century, radio waves became increasingly used as a means of remotely controlling devices. The earliest speech transmission via radio occurred in 1901. Because many scientists were working on these technologies simultaneously, it was difficult to attribute precisely one figure who was responsible for the modern use of wireless communication. Following the dawn of radio came the adoption of television, mobile phones and wireless internet.
Types of Wireless Communication
Radio waves make up the largest portion of wireless communication (Dalal, 2015). However, there are many different kinds of wireless technologies, some which utilize radio waves and others which do not. Satellite communication, which uses man-made ports launched into space and orbiting the globe, is used by global positioning systems. Wireless networking connects computers and systems via a router and can be encrypted to prevent security risks. Bluetooth, another form of radio communication, is used for “hands-free” earpieces as well as hooking up wireless keyboards and mice.
Yet, other technologies utilize microwaves (not to be confused with the microwave oven, which must be plugged into a wall) and infrared, rather than radio waves to communicate wirelessly. Microwave towers, similar to radio towers, are used for microwave transmission. Infrared uses lasers or light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to transmit electromagnetic waves. Devices which use infrared include remote controls and thermal imaging technology. Microwaves and infrared are less commonly used than radio waves.
Devices That Utilize Wireless Communication
The number of devices which utilize wireless communication are innumerable. Perhaps the most familiar to the modern user is the smartphone, which utilizes wireless communication in both the sense that data is transmitted to and from the device as well as the sense that the user may communicate wirelessly with others. This distinction is important to note, as many devices provide wireless communication solely in the first sense. Other devices which enable human communication as well as communication between technology include pagers, computers, and broadcast radio.
Devices which provide wireless communication in a purely technological sense include satellites, routers, transmission towers and certain aspects of computers, specifically the data required to connect to the internet. These devices are more often used secondarily to enable human communication via e-mail, text messages, social media and phone calls. In terms of impact, it can be argued that these secondary devices are more important as they provide the foundation by which the primary communication devices can be used.
A subcategory which should be mentioned are the devices which utilize wireless communication, though they were previously wired. In particular, the components of the desktop computer, such as the mouse and keyboard, have increasingly converted toward wireless. Wireless printers and scanners are helpful in the modern workplace, as many may now access what only one person could access previously.
Figure 1. Types of devices which utilize wireless communication. Source: PC Tech Magazine (2015, Nov. 2).
To expand upon the earlier historical examples of television, mobile phones and wireless internet, a television utilizes wireless communication to produce images on a screen and was traditionally broadcast by stations, similarly to radios. Yet, wireless communication evolved within the field of television. Many televisions were upgraded from “cable” (wires in the ground which transmitted data) to satellite. Now television exits on the wireless internet, through services like Netflix and Hulu.
Mobile phones, like cable television, were once confined by wires. A phone was a device plugged into a wall and ran on above-ground telephone wires. Attempts to make the phone more mobile in the form of “car phones” utilized satellites to communicate. Modern mobile and smartphones use terrestrial towers to provide better coverage and a truly wireless experience.
An argument can be made for “wireless” internet, in that computers and devices such as tablets and smartphones can access the internet remotely. However, “wireless” internet typically requires a wired modem or router as a starting point.
These three examples are perhaps the most commonly used by consumers and professionals alike today. Yet older devices, such as pagers, once had a strictly professional use in the medical industry. In fact, many wireless devices started as professional devices and slowly transitioned into commercial use, as it became more popular for work to be done at home. In terms of adoption, the secondary phase of wireless communication typically started with professional use and then was popularized by the teenagers of professional parents (Miranda, 2015).
Wireless Communication Disadvantages
In an increasingly wired world, it is difficult to comprehend that wireless technology has any disadvantages. If anything, wireless communication has been a net gain for humanity. install and maintain these systems requires complex human knowledge, whereas previously communication was as simple as visiting another person. Wireless communication is susceptible to security risks. Hackers can easily access wireless networks and steal valuable personal information from an unwary user. Finally, many users are familiar with the struggle of trying and failing to access a faulty wireless network. For example, the University of Minnesota WiFi.
Wireless communication seems intimidatingly broad yet the underlying concept is as simple as a sender, channel and receiver. The technologies which utilize wireless communication are vast, from satellites to computes, television and phones. New technologies continue to emerge. In general, wireless communication has made work faster and easier, though it is not without its disadvantages. However, the advantages far outweigh the potential costs. Wireless communication improves both the personal and professional lives of all who utilize it.
Dalal, U. (2015). Wireless Communication and Networks. Oxford University Press. Retrieved October 15, 2016.
Miranda, L. C., & Lima, C. A. (2013). Technology substitution and innovation adoption: The cases of imaging and mobile communication markets. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 80(6), 1179-1193. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2012.11.003
Salazar-Palma M., Sarkar T.K. and Sengupta D. (2010). "The father of radio: A brief chronology of the origin and developments of wireless communication and supporting electronics," Telecommunications Conference (HISTELCON), 2010 Second IEEE Region 8 Conference on the History of, Madrid, 2010, pp. 1-8. doi: 10.1109/HISTELCON.2010.5735325
PC Tech Magazine. (2015, November 02). Telstra to trial Long Range WAN IoT wireless technology in Melbourne. Retrieved October 15, 2016.