WELCOME – Distinguished Professor Xinghuo Yu
OK alright OK let's start. Welcome everyone to our RMIT Distinguished Lecture. I'm Xinghuo Yu, the Chair of RMIT’s Professorial Academy and the host of today's event.
Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the people Kulin Nations on whose unceded lands we are meeting on today and respectively acknowledge their elders past and present.
So, today we shall hear from Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas, who will deliver his lecture on Why Wi-Fi matters: the past, present and future of a social technology. This is part of the activities hosted by the Academy to fulfil its obligation as ambassador, advocator and thought leader for RMIT.
Before we start, we’ll just to go through some housekeeping things. This is a Teams Live event, so you will not be able to directly ask any questions by microphone. So please post your questions in the Q&A section during the lecture, and at the end of the lecture I will pick up those popular questions to ask the presenter on your behalf.
Okay, let’s get to the lecture and start by introducing the presenter. Julian Thomas is Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making and Society, and a Distinguished Professor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT. He has published extensively; his latest book is on Wi-Fi which is the very topic of this lecture. His other projects include the Australian Digital Inclusion Index, Internet on the Outstation: The Digital Divide and Remote Aboriginal Communities, and The Informal Media Economy. Thomas was elected to the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 2017.
So, without any further ado, please join me to welcome Julian to deliver his lecture. So, over to you Julian, thanks.
LECTURE: Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas
Thank you so much, Xing and it's a real, it's a real pleasure. Let me just share my screen. I've got some slides, so if we just hang on a second I'll get them up for everyone.
Can everyone see my slides now? Can you see them Xing? [Yes, OK]
Thank you and yes, as I say thank you again very privileged to have the chance to speak to the Academy and everyone here at RMIT and beyond on this topic
As you mentioned, we've published a book recently about Wi-Fi and much of what I will be saying today speaks to the content of that book and is and really does come out of work and conversations that I've been involved with over a number of years especially with my colleagues Ellie Rennie and Rowan Wilken, who co-authored that book. But also, more widely with my colleagues in the Technology, Communications and Policy Lab in DERC, our research centre, and in the new ARC Centre as well.
We decided to work on Wi-fi because we thought it brought together some themes which we have been interested in, jointly and separately for some time round digital inequality's, their histories of new technology, new technologies, and how they're governed and regulated, the political economy of automation and locational media, among other things. Soo as well as thanks to you for inviting me to give this talk, I really should thank the University, our School and the College for providing a very a supportive and positive environment for us to pursue this work since we started at RMIT in 2017.
I feel like we've come a fairway with it, it's got more and more interesting as we've gone along. Partly because that context, in which we've been writing about these technologies, has changed so quickly.
So, in the talk today, I want to touch on a few things as concisely as I can. Going to talk a little bit about Wi-fi's history and what we take to be its most interesting features as a social technology as we say. The answer to the question of why Wi-fi matters really depends on who you are and where you are. I'll talk a little bit about that. But I think that it, it's had significance differently invariably overtime. So, when we think about the history of Wi-fi, we think that's very important for us because it gives us a very particular legacy of a kind of technical, social and policy innovation which we think is important.
We think that Wi-fi in the present is important because it has the potential to reduce vulnerabilities, to manage risks and to address longstanding and difficult problems around digital inclusion and digital inequality.
We think that for the future wi-fi I could offer some models for a more affordable, more mobile and accessible Internet, and we still think that is very important.
We want to touch on the question also of what we might call might be the social futures for Wi-fi, what might we really want to do with this?
But to start with, let's just talk a little bit about what we take Wi-fi to be, because it turns out to be a lot of things. It's more than the technology itself or the standard approved by the Technical Association for Wireless Communication, the IEEE standard. Wi-fi is a brand owned and controlled by an industry and industry association called the Wi-Fi alliance.
It it's also a set of standards, it's a set of protocols for how to connect, how to set up a Wi-Fi network. It's an institution, or really a few different institutions, I mentioned the IEEE which has a standard setting process. It's also that body than the Wi-fi Alliance, which is really driven by a different kind of intellectual property and trademarks and controlling the use of that term.
It's a bundle of contested, bitterly contested in some cases property rights. People may be familiar with the story of CSIRO litigation around patents for wi-Fi related technologies.
Wi-fi is also a set of conflicting ideas about what this technology should be for and how it should be used, and of course it's all that jumble of hardware and software which we have at home and at work, and it seems right now everywhere else.
The essential thing Wi-fi does is that enables shared low-cost mobile access to the Internet, and it began to do so before we had our low cost, ubiquitous high-speed mobile broadband in any other form. So, it's been very important in terms of making that mobile Internet possible, and everything that flowed from that
We can think of Wi-fi as a kind of infrastructure and by infrastructure, we're really talking about systems that are designed to move one something from one place to another. Wi-fi moves data from one place to another, it moves information. But the thing we find particularly interesting about it is that it also can shift agency and sometimes autonomy are from one place to another. I'll say a little bit more about how that works or might work as we go along.
It's an interesting and distinctive form of infrastructure. There's now quite a body of scholarship around the sort of social studies of infrastructure, spinning out of work on social studies of science and those kinds of areas. And people have written about how infrastructural systems are often embedded inside others, built into social arrangements and technologies. They're often at augmentation of other infrastructures, so for example we often find that communications infrastructures are often built on top of transport infrastructures, road and rail and so forth.
Infrastructures often appear to be transparent. They're somewhat invisible. You take them for granted, usually until something goes wrong. But one of the things that's interesting about Wi-fi is that it is different from that Wi-fi is visible, it's not really transparent as you can see in that picture, almost wherever you find Wi-fi, at least outside the household, you find brands you find signs, you find as on the 1st slide in our talk writ large some indication that Wi-fi is there.
So, Wi-fi is like a lot of infrastructure and can certainly be understood in many of those ways, but it also has some very interesting differences, and we'll talk a bit more about those as well as we go along
But the critical attributes of Wi-Fi are really from our perspective as follow. In the first place Wi-fi, at least in the home and in small businesses and elsewhere, is provided by users themselves, it's an add on an additional device and extension to a network which enables you to do other things, but it's generally paid for and provided by users themselves and the communities, as I said, it can be households, but this makes a very big difference.
The other thing about it, which is significant I think, is that it uses a part of the spectrum, which is open for everybody, it's common spectrum. In American parlance, it's unlicensed so that the rules around using the spectrum which we use for Wi-fi communications really don't go very far beyond the basic principle that you're not supposed to interfere with other transmissions.
But this is a really important point, and it's one that's made the whole thing possible.
Wi-fi is also low cost, there's so much of it it's very, very cheap. We could say that Wi-fi has reconfigured access to the Internet. This is a reference to the Internet studies scholar Bill Dutton, who talked about this in a different context.
Not only does Wi-fi change the way we access the Internet, it also changes how we access the Internet. So, if you think about how Wi-fi for example has really made smartphones possible. Even working alongside cellular services at it's always been Wi-fi and certainly was in the first phase of wife of smartphone our generations where it was, it was through Wi-fi that people could do things like download music, download apps, sync photos do all of those kinds of fundamental things. So, Wi-fi has changed, not just how we get data, but also how we how we use the Internet.
There's an interesting set of dynamics about how Wi-Fi evolves, I think. Partly because of those things that we've been talking about, the low cost, the fact that it's provided by users themselves. The evolution of Wi-fi has been a gradual proposition, it's happened slowly over a long period of time. But another dynamic running in parallel with that gradual evolutionary development has been some step changes usually driven by public policy and regulation and one of the key ones there was changes in regulation that opened up that common unlicensed spectrum for use with, by technologies, which turned out to be Wi-fi that goes back to the mid-1980s.
So, it's things that Wi-fi does. If you look briefly at how it's developed over time, we can review that as well relatively crisply, I think.
You can see a series of significant developments. Wireless communication of course, goes right back early 20th century and some of the critical theoretical work significantly predates anything from the 1970 or later.
But we began to say experimental wireless data networks from the 1970s onwards and ALOHA net, University of Hawaii in 1970 was one of the very first. I talked earlier about the decision to assign unlicensed spectrum which really made Wi-fi possible, that happened in 1985.
Also, an absolutely critical development are very different approach to assigning what is a precious public resource, that's the spectrum for communications. In the past, and in many cases spectrum has been allocated by government policy decision to particular users.
In the case of free to air television for example, in Australia it was really allocated on the basis of decisions about those licensees that government thought were most appropriate to deliver those services. Later on, from the 1970s, nineteen 80s and 1990s onwards governments began to assign spectrum on the basis of auctions, they would go to the highest bidder.
But this idea that you don't assign spectrum to a particular owner. You don't make a property right out of it, but you turn it into a common resource is a really important one because that's what's enabled Wi-Fi to develop in the way it has
So, alongside that, as I say, there's been a steady development of a gradual progression of work towards wireless networking through the 1970s and 1980s. NCR, National Cash Register company, their branch in the Netherlands began work on a net, a wireless network for cash registers in the 1980s, they wanted to market that in the United States and therefore adopted that open spectrum that was made available and started and that really started the process of devising the standards for wireless networks, local wireless networks which became what we now call Wi-Fi.
But universities have also been alongside those kind of commercial uses, critical areas for innovation We mentioned the University of Hawaii, Carnegie Mellon, really developed the first significant wireless campus network in the early 1990s.
Wi-fi doesn't really become a thing for consumers or small businesses until the very end of that decade. The turn of the new millennium when Apple releases the airport and tide of other devices following the IEEE standardization of what came to be called Wi-fi very quickly, the 802.11 standard.
So, that's the story leading up to about the turn of the millennium. If we look at Wi-fi now, the numbers really are extraordinary, as you can see, 16 billion devices in use, 4 billion devices shipped just last year. This is the single most used medium for Internet traffic anywhere.
You could even think about just the range of the extraordinary proliferation of devices that are now connected in homes. Some researchers think that we now have around 10 devices a household, but on average connected and they include all kinds of things. So, moving from the early connections for laptops printers, and PCS, those kinds of things in the early 20th century, we now have that extraordinary plethora of household devices of all kinds, and particularly in very prominently smartphones.
So, what's interesting there, of course is the tension between, what I've called, of rather gradual process of evolution and development, several different standards being released overtime, incremental improvements in bandwidth security, and so forth.
On the one hand, and on the other hand, an explosion of demand, and that has created the kinds of problems that we now all familiar with Wi-fi, the fact that it can be unpredictably slow, it can be it that the coverage can be patchy in any given household. There may be rooms where you have good reception and spaces where you don't, but of course people are trying to work in all of these. Problems about insecurity, the insecurity of the networks. Problems about privacy, problems about surveillance. So, in some smart city deployments of Wi-fi for example, there have been problems with tracking people through as they move through a city using Wi-Fi access points.
This is the kind of tension which has emerged around and the pressure points that have emerged around this technology in recent years.
Just the say a little bit then about why Wi-fi matters and why it is particularly significant at the moment. Two scenes you probably be familiar with them both. You may have seen these sorts of images before.
The one on the left is a is from the south coast of New South Wales, a photo taken in the summer of 2020 after and during the period of time where Bush fires were raging through that part of the East coast. And what you see there is a, is a free Wi-fi hotspot that's been set up by the NBN the National Broadband Network for people to access the Internet. It’s also got device charging points there, it’s got spaces for people to use the Internet and you can see it's connected to a satellite connection. That's the image on the left.
The one on the right wasn't taken very much later but that's related to a totally different catastrophe of course which is the COVID pandemic and what you see there is a woman called Beth Revis, who's working in the back of her car, she's using she's a writer, and this is in a primary school in North Carolina and she is using the Wi-fi to work outside the school there.
So, these are the sorts of scenes that we've become familiar with. In the case of the bushfires, critical infrastructure was destroyed, right cross the east coast of Australia. Regular cellular services regular fixed broadband, electricity and all, and we were destroyed and of course people needed to continue to be able to do that do things they needed to be able to continue to connect with friends, family, work and colleagues. They needed to be able to communicate with health services they needed to be able to do their banking and shopping and so forth. So, this was, and this is an essential service. Wi-fi was the fall back if everything else failed, it worked because it was so highly adaptable, so inexpensive and so many people of course have the devices which connect to it.
The story about the pandemic and Wi-fi I think is in some ways more complicated. And the circumstances of the person in the car here really reflect what happens when you don't have Wi-Fi at home and what do you do in those circumstances? In Batemans Bay the solution for Wi-fi was too was to get everybody together to build a community facility. In North Carolina it was all about keeping people apart and keeping people separate.
Wi-fi worked especially in people’s homes where it was possible for people to use that technology and where it was possible for people to do the home schooling to do the working from home to maintain social contact with other people. But of course, there were so many people who didn't have those connections and we're in the circumstances where they had to rely on a school. But what happened in the pandemic of course, was that when was that household Wi-fi became absolutely critical.
Public Wi-Fi evaporated or diminished, the Wi-Fi provided by the school is an exception. What happened much more often was that schools, libraries, cafes and other places where people could access Wi-fi if they didn't have it tended to go. So, whereas the public space after the bushfires made bought people together to use this at a Community level. With North Carolina, it was all about how people could be kept apart and still have some kind of access to this technology.
To talk a little more about the social dynamics of the problems, this is has caused.
And we can a couple of pieces of research here which I think are helpful. Who has Wi-fi helped and where do people need assistance? How have we managed with Wi-fi in the pandemic?
The figure on the left is a is a matrix of risk profiles for people’s exposure to COVID-19. And the bottom axis, the horizontal one goes from fewer digital resources, more unconnected people to more connected people on the right-hand side. On the vertical axis, we're going from bottom to top from sheltered circumstances to more exposed where we're tracking the degree to which people are exposed to a risk of covid-19.
You can see that there's a quadrant there which is the sheltered and connected, and these are the people that Wi-Fi helped most of all. As I say, somebody working out the out of the back of a car near a school was not really entirely in that category. They were exposed but connected and at higher risk. The strategy of course, was to try to work and stay in the vehicle.
So, it's a significant point that while Wi-fi was enormously important in enabling people to carry on with work with schooling with social connections through the pandemic, it wasn't there for everybody and it depended in fact on other people taking risks and being more exposed.
If we think about who the sorts of people are who were more vulnerable. You can see some of in the chart on the right which shows the social distribution of digital inclusion in Australia in 2019 measured by our project our digital Inclusion index project work of colleagues in our lab and Swinburne Centre for Social Impact. And you can sort of see there just how significant the differences are in digital resources across our society.
Whether you look at income or employment or education or age, there are stark differences so that when we are in the sorts of circumstances we're in now, some people are at vastly risk than others.
You can see in particular that when we look at measures of digital inclusion and we're talking about people’s access to Internet, devices to data, we’re talking about affordability, we're talking about the digital skills have, all of those things brought together in this measure. You can see that our lowest income households are particularly exposed and also people aged over 65. So, two key groups are highly vulnerable and significantly with significantly fewer digital resources than the rest of the population.
So, Wi-fi is quite important for this. You can see there's a little bit by seeing what sort of happened overtime here with this. So, so on the right here we've got you've got two charts which track the differences for digital inclusion, for the richest quintile of Australians and the poorest on the top. The income gap and down the bottom, the age gap. What you see is that hasn't changed really significantly. In either case, since we started collecting data on this for back for 2014, so why do we think that is? The chart on the left gives you some ideas about that. That shows the trends for digital inclusion when we divided up according to the different dimensions of access, affordability and digital ability. So, you can see there that access for Australians, access to the Internet, access to digital resources has improved steadily and significantly over the last 5-6 years. And that's because very substantial investments have been made in fixed broadband and in mobile broadband services.
When you look at the measure of digital ability you can see that has also improved but it's a lagging indicator compared to the access, compared to the data, the devices, the network, hardware infrastructure, all that kind of thing. The skills are lagging behind the infrastructure there,
But the one that's a very significant concern I think as affordability. That's our measure of how much of a person household income they're having to devote to Internet services and what they're getting for their dollar. And you can see that with some downs and some little apps, we're basically it's basically flat, so that hasn't improved, and we do think that this is exactly where Wi-fi is going to be particularly important because it is low cost because it is shareable, it has a very important role there, so that's where we see the situation in the present.
Wi-fi has considerable possibilities. It has made possible all kinds of things during the pandemic, which we would simply not otherwise have been able to do it. It has kept people together. It's kept people working, it's enabled home schooling for what it is worth. But it's also in the case that significant numbers of people have been excluded whether excluded from work having to be in a position where they're risks have been much greater because they've been exposed, or if they're older, have been isolated because they don't have connections. So, our point here is Wi-fi has been tremendously important Batemans Bay and in North Carolina in the face of quite different catastrophes. But there's still very substantial work to do.
So, turning to the future, then. We’re dealing here with this question of whether or not an affordable mobile accessible Internet is going to be possible as we move on with a rapidly accelerating digital transformation?
I talked a little earlier about the two paces, the dynamic of gradual evolution for Wi-Fi, combined with the occasional step change in especially in regulatory settings. And I think this is the kind of situation we are now in and where we need to work through. Wi-fi has gradually improved, it's gradually involved, but there is an extraordinary momentum around and increasing diverse density of connections, diversity of connections. So, you've got remarkable intensive and extensive growth in how people are connecting to the Internet and so how much, how much they're online and the range of things they're doing online. I have both grown very dramatically and of course COVID, the pandemic has played a major role in that.
So, on the one hand, you have that gradual evolution of the technology. On the other hand, you have this extraordinary explosion of demand. So, we you do not have a Wi-fi at the moment, which is necessarily dealing with this terribly. The sorts of problems that we talked about earlier that difficulties about managing network connections at home when children are online at school, when adults are working, when people are syncing photos, podcasts, everything else at the same time, when we're relying on this technology for social communication, connection and entertainment – it clearly that the entire system is under a good deal of pressure. Managing, yes. A much better than it might have been because of the NBN, certainly but under pressure, nevertheless.
So, there is change that is happening. And the other kind of critical trend which I think is congruent with this happening at the same time also enormously significant is a shift in how we are using these connected devices, so we no longer simply using our Wi-fi in order to connect to communication and information services. We're also increasingly using these systems for automated devices of the kind that are proliferating in households. I’ve mentioned many of them before, there's got an image there of a couple of smart speakers to give you a little idea of the kinds of things people now do with Wi-fi, which had rather different from the previous model of connecting a laptop to the web for the purposes of browsing for the purposes of email for the purposes of accessing of downloading files or applications.
So, it's a very different sort of sort of environment, but we're still using the old Wi-fi in order to try and do it.
So, the immediate strategies for the Wi-fi alliance and the companies behind the technology of Wi-fi and the IEEE standards processes around this, has been to develop the next generation of Wi-fi, which they call Wi-fi 6. They've rebranded Wi-fi brand and Wi-fi. In recent years in order to compete more effectively with cellular services. We're all familiar with the cellular typology of 3G, 4G, 5G. So, now Wi-fi has done the same thing. They've abandoned that complicated alphabet soup of different standards numbers and letters to go for something which is sensibly simpler, so they they've gone.
So, we now have Wi-fi 6, as I say a gradual evolution, but an interesting one in that it's intended to do a number of different things. It is of course designed to increase the bandwidth available to increase the perceived speed of services. It’s designed to manage that multiplicity of devices that are now connected much better than in the past. It's designed to improve security and it's designed to improve the energy use of devices, especially those that use batteries and more and more of them do.
It's designed also to attempt to develop some new domains and new technologies for Wi-fi. So places where in the past there hasn't been a lot of it, the idea is that in hospitals for example it may be that secure Wi-fi networks are used for automated systems through that, for the digital management of patients of systems behind them, the kinds of equipment that are required there, and also of course for patients themselves.
It's envisaged that Wi-fi could become increasingly important at live performance whether sport or other kinds of performance where people may want to watch and see things on a screen alongside live action. Clearly also advertising is likely to be involved in that.
So, they’re sort of immediate futures and we're already starting to see that sort of slightly improved version of Wi-Fi starting to appear. It it's more interesting is something else called Wi-fi 6E and trying not to get overly technical about this, but this goes back to the earlier discussion about spectrum allocation. What's happened here is that after very many years, the Federal Communications Commission in the United States has decided to allocate a substantial additional block of spectrum to their those unlicensed uses, which of course include Wi-fi so this is now being described by the Wi-fi Alliance as Wi-fi 6E, and is intent and is likely to increase the spectrum, the bandwidth available for Wi-fi at home and elsewhere, but around four times. So, this is partly also to address the kinds of problems we encounter with Wi-fi in our increasingly densely occupied urban environments, in blocks of apartments where people are living nearby each other and we're getting lots of interference across different Wi-fi networks on in mass transit and so on. This is an example of the kind of step change I was talking about that has the capacity and the potential to entirely change the kinds of things Wi-Fi can do.
There are a number of questions that arise out of those immediate futures that I think are challenging for the proponents of Wi-Fi. The Wi-fi Alliance has a slogan about the future of Wi-fi, which is about how Wi-fi is going to be, it's going to be everywhere. It's going to be for everyone, and it's going to do everything. That really needs to be picked apart a bit.
We’re seeing an increasingly complex relationship with cellular services and this plays out in many different ways. My colleagues Rowan Wilken and James Meese are beginning an ARC discovery project on the political economy and regulation of 5G and I think it'll be extraordinarily interesting to follow that work. Because of course 5G and 4G have both emerged as in many respects, preferred networks faster services than Wi-fi, more reliable in many cases. Clearly Wi-fi doesn't want to be seen perceived to be second best. And the whole idea of Wi-fi 6 and Wi-fi 6E is about competing with that brand, that 5G brand.
But the other point about this and this occurred to me actually a little while ago when we started writing this book about Wi-fi, the publishers sent it out to a few readers, and one of them wrote back saying ‘why are you bothering? Just write about 5G, that's really, all that matters now. Wi-fi is in the past.’ But when you explore this a little further, what we find is that Wi-fi isn't quite in the past, because in fact 5G and 4G are likely to make very substantial use of Wi-fi, and 4G already does. So, these are intertwined and interconnected services rather than simple competitors.
Some analysts, Cisco has reports suggesting that it could be that up to 70% mobile traffic on 4 and 5G networks may be offloaded to Wi-fi within the next couple of years because it's simply more economical and easier for them to do that when networks become congested than building their own surge capacity into purely 5G or 4G networks. That is an interesting coexistence there and co‑dependence. A lot of the technologies we find in Wi-fi 6 are actually also derived from those cellular technologies.
There are geopolitical dimensions. I've got a little map there you can see where 6E starting to happen and where it's not. It's very clear that in China and in some other countries, the argument is that spectrum which FCC wants to align to once given over to a spectrum commons ought to be sold to 5G carriers because that will be where the demand is. And there are also of course an ongoing series of questions about the relationships between Wi-fi and digital platforms and the platform economies that sustain them. Wi-fi was born before the big digital platforms as we know, that Apple Airport came out at a time when Google was about was one year old.
There seem to have been in fact, there have been various attempts to build platforms out of Wi-fi, particularly advertising supported ones, but apart from some isolated cases, that hasn't happened so far and Wi-fi remains a relatively adaptable ubiquitous and widely usable infrastructure that has not been captured by any single digital platform.
All of that raises, I guess my last set of questions which are really about what I would call the social futures of Wi-fi. What might it become if it is if it is shaped by policy and by design, not purely by commercial ideas or technical agendas closely associated with those?
I would say that in what looking at Wi-fi’s past, there have been examples of social futures at play. I think the Federal Communications Commission when it decided to allocate that spectrum for unlicensed use, was imagining a social, what we would call a social future, and certainly the vibrant community networking movement of the 2000s which drove the whole agenda around community and metropolitan Wi-fi participated in that sort of thinking. So, the question is now then, when we're seeing these more automated networks where Wi-Fi is no longer just about transmitting data, but also about generating it and using it in all sorts of different ways. How could Wi-Fi continue to support not just a basic infrastructure of basic data network, but also that key point that I talked about at the beginning, the distribute the redistribution of agency in an increasingly automated environment. So, I finished with one quick example of that Xing and then I hope we have time for questions. But coming back to the university as I said, universities have always played a critical role in Wi-Fi innovation, and faced enormous problems in terms of welcoming students back onto our campuses and managing risks for those people.
If you think about that quadrant of risk profiles I talked about earlier, what we're we all know that the people who are safe at home and have Wi-fi are fine, but when we have people who are coming onto campus, how can we manage this? So, I was interested in the work of colleagues at Melbourne University and Dethlefs and colleagues there who have written in the IEEE spectrum recently about ways which a university campus Wi-fi network could be used to show how people could be the movement of people across campuses could be used to make campuses safer for changing densities, identifying high risk zone, target cleaning and ventilation and so forth, encouraging social distancing. So, this seems like it could be the way forward of a Wi-fi we might want to see. A responsible use of this extraordinary technology which has both promised a great deal, delivered much and disappointed in equal measure, but responsible use that could help us rebuild our communities.
Thanks very much Xing. I’ll finish it there.
Q&A: Distinguished Professor Xinghuo Yu
Thank you very much Julian for fascinating talk, so while we are waiting for a question so much I just take that the privilege as a Chair to ask a few questions.
So, you mentioned the IEEE standard, if you look at the history you displayed how these standard it's was developed in a relatively peaceful period of time there is one country dominating all the technology. In my experience in the IEEE, you basically through quite democratic process have this kind of a common user come together to eventually develop standard so everybody share. I was wondering whether in the future these type of technologies that the development of the democratic process will be impacted by the confrontation of the superpowers. Because in the developing IEEE standard you see the domination of major vendors, they come here, they say that we want this standard, that's the whole or the product we produced. You have to follow so you do see some of the vendor domination but I'm just worried that in this new uncertain the word, so those kind of technologies which has benefited humankind would be sort of impacted, means that you would have a derivative from government say you're not supposed to use one, use this one so it's kind of a divided rather than united whole world together.
Response: Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas
I agree, and I think it is a really very significant risk. I think we're sort of seeing this a little bit already. We're seeing the emergence of a competing Wi-fi 6 developed and advocated for by Huawei which is using different part of the spectrum and has different kinds of features. As I say that I think Wi-fi 6E this new generation intended to use that new part of the spectrum. There is no international consensus yet that this is the future of Wi-fi. No international consensus in the sense of no global consensus, so we may the sort of splintering that you're talking about. The IEEE is fascinating. It has worked extraordinarily effectively in the circumstances you talked about, but I think actually, they are CSIRO cases were an example of how a particular source of innovation that which came from outside that group was very disruptive, and clearly there is the potential for a lot more of that in the future.
Question: Distinguished Professor Xinghuo Yu
But how do you see this kind of Wi-fi technology drive, the narrow the gap between poor and the rich. Because you see the mixed messages, you see in Africa, in the remote area where there was no electricity, but they can do the communication right, they can phone, they just put the poles there, put a bit of battery, then they talk to each other. You’d think that probably that will narrow the gap.
But on the other hand, you see that urbanization, you know people moving to cities, how do you see those kind of technology driving this kind of social change? I mean, there's plus and negative thing, right?
Response: Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas
Absolutely there are, but I do think Wi-fi is a critical part of the mix, partly because it's so adaptable it's so low cost, and the critical thing I think is that it can be managed and to some degree controlled by communities themselves. So, for example, when we think about Wi-fi community networks in remote indigenous networks in Australia, and my colleague Ellie Rennie talks a little bit about these in the book, a critically important aspect of these is that to some extent, the communities may be able to manage these networks to control them themselves in ways which they may not be able to do with others. So, it's not just about providing the access, it's this point also that I was coming back to in the talk that what Wi-fi does or can do is redistribute agency and that is the that is the key, I think to the sort of social change that you're talking about. Giving people control of some of this technology and this is one way, it’s certainly not the only way, but one way in which they can do it. Yeah, for sure.
Distinguished Professor Xinghuo Yu
OK, thanks Julian. I haven't seen any new question come along. It appears to be everybody is very happy with your talk and everybody questions about, yeah. So, if there's no further question, I think we're just about time with just a few minutes before the closing time. So, thank you very much, Julian for a fascinating talk and hopefully we listen to your talk in the future.
And also thank you everyone. So hopefully you will attend to the next distinguished lecture. So, thank you.
Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas
Thanks everybody, thank you very much Xing. Yeah thank you. Bye for now.
8 September 2021, presented by Distinguished Professor Julian Thomas
From café culture to home schooling, remote community networks, and smart cities, Wi-Fi is an invisible but fundamental element of contemporary life. Loosely regulated, low-cost, and largely overlooked by social researchers, this technology has driven the rise of the smartphone and broadband internet, and is now a vital element in the next wave of automation. During the pandemic, household Wi-Fi has been critically important for connected households, enabling new ways of working from home and maintaining social links.
At the same time, the closure of libraries, campuses and other public Wi-Fi locations has exacerbated disadvantage for people without ready access to the internet. This talk reviews the history of wi-fi, showing how a technology originally designed to connect cash registers came to play an important social role. It describes Wi-Fi’s immediate prospects, including its relations to high speed 5G cellular services, and its possible longer-run social futures, which may hinge upon its uniquely decentralised and inclusive capabilities for automation.