INI Faculty Member Published in Scientific American

October 04, 2005

From the very beginning, the INI has been at the forefront of wireless Internet research. In the 1990's the INI created the first wireless network in the world - Wireless Andrew - before the term Wi-Fi had even been coined. Since then, wireless networks have spread rapidly and are now a common feature in offices, homes, universities, and businesses.However, the popularity of Wi-Fi has led to some problems as networks become overloaded, so now a new generation of Wi-Fi has been developed - smart Wi-Fi.

The October issue of Scientific American features an article by INI faculty member Alex Hills about the limitations of Wi-Fi and the advantages of smart Wi-Fi. As founding director of the INI, Hills was also the founder of the Wireless Andrew project. A later INI director, Ben Bennington, was also very involved in the project. While Hills was Vice Provost and Chief Information Officer of CMU, he shepherded the transition of Wireless Andrew from a research project to a full operational network. "We were able to roll it out quickly - way ahead of everyone else. We were fully operational by 1999 when Wi-Fi wasn't even on the radar."

The fact that CMU has been working on wireless networks for a longer time meant that the institution was also ahead of the game in discovering the drawbacks of Wi-Fi. "Since CMU was the first university to have this network," says Hills, "we were the first to become aware that Wi-Fi would have some problems - and we started working on ways to solve these problems."

One problem with Wi-Fi is that the radio transmissions that it operates on weaken with distance. These transmissions can also be disrupted by objects in the area and noise or interference from machinery, lighting, and appliances. Smart Wi-Fi was created to try to minimize these problems so that wireless networks can deliver the same performance that we expect from wired networks. While Hills has done most of his work on smart WiFi with Airespace (now a part of Cisco Systems), he says "smart Wi-Fi has its roots in Wireless Andrew."

Hills is currently doing public service work with several universities around the world. He serves as Profesor Extraordinario at Universidad Austral de Chile and will be a visiting professor in New Zealand this year. He and his wife split their time between Pittsburgh, Alaska, Chile, and New Zealand.