Wi-Fi and The Hierarchy of Needs

Today marks World Telecommunication and Information Society Day. The significance of celebrating WTISD is to highlight the need for universal access to telecommunication services and to promote digital inclusion. Innovation Network

In recognition of this occasion, our Director Ian Oppermann, has written an article on Wi-Fi and Hierarchy of Needs.


We have all heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The framework presents a view on what we need to survive and then ultimately thrive. It speaks to our needs as living animals, as social creatures, as people within a civilisation, and ultimately as sentient beings. Maslow’s hierarchy goes from: food, shelter, clothing and sleep: to self-esteem: and to self-actualisation. It has been tinkered with over the years since it was originally proposed in 1943, but still provides a useful framework to think through human behaviours and motivations.

But ask your children what they think are the most important elements of life, and Wi-Fi very quickly comes up.

It has been argued that connectivity should be a human right and in Finland of all places communications has been a legal right since 2010.  This means that, for more than a decade, wherever you go in Finland, you have a right to access at 1Mbps. Each Christmas period when I am fortunate enough to be travelling in regional or remote Australia, my friend Matti will call from Finland. As I drive out of the regional town where I took the call, I typically say something like “I am losing coverage”. His response is “what do you mean?  how is that possible?”. I am sure he will eventually understand. Or perhaps, we will improve our regional connectivity over time!

Back to Wi-Fi. We know the basics of Wi-Fi were invented in Australia by the clever folks at CSIRO’s radio astronomy division. Nowadays, it is almost everywhere and often offered for free. The reality however is however that, once you leave urban enrolments, it runs out. We also know, it typically does not work well outdoors.

Wi-Fi relies on radio waves in either the 2.4GHz band (think microwave oven frequencies) or 5.8GHz band (slightly more exotic but similar). Radio waves travel at the speed of light which is very fast but also finite, and they attenuate with the square of distance. The last part means that if you double the distance, you receive one quarter of the signal strength. Also, higher frequencies attenuate faster. There is more bandwidth “room” at 5.8GHz, but it does not travel anywhere near as far as the 2.4GHz band. Physics is showing its hand.

Nonetheless Wi-Fi works well over household scale distances or over larger spaces with the help of repeaters. If, however, you are planning to provide Wi-Fi over distances of several kilometres without lots and lots of repeaters, these factors of physics become a problem.

So, what has happened lately? Wi-Fi keeps getting better in terms of data rates and number of connectable devices. Acknowledging this, the Connectivity Innovation Network (CIN) has taken on the challenges associated with going outside and going wide. Earlier this year the CIN team demonstrated a large area Wi-Fi system that can work literally anywhere, and provide high data rates to many users over a 4 square km area. The solution was demonstrated at Wattamolla Beach in the Royal National Park in NSW, a real-world environment, and offered 10’s of Mbps to many simultaneous users after being “dropped” from the back of a truck.

So, what is the secret? Two in fact. One is an amazing beam steering antenna developed by UTS that brings more than 30 times the gain to a given user when they need it. That propagation loss gets a 30x boost when they need it, and then the next user gets the same when they need it. The second is the access protocol. That pesky speed-of-light issues means that every km of distance means 10’s of microseconds of delay before the signal arrives. That is enough to mess up how Wi-Fi protocols work. Secondly, the University of Sydney team reworked the protocol that organises how data packets are sent and allows more time for data packages to get where they need to go given the finite speed of light.

The result, when linked with ultra resiient satellite backhaul from Pivotel Satellite is Wi-Fi that can literally be dropped in a muddy field and offer connectivity to many people, over long distances, at serious data rates. It may sound simple, but this is a world first. There is nothing trivial about antenna design or protocol reworking. But we in Australia gave birth to Wi-Fi. Why would we not take a step further to develop Wi-Fi for those most in need?

So… would your children chose Wi-Fi over a meal or demand to keep using the internet instead of going to sleep?  I will leave that one with you to consider for yourself.  In the meantime, be proud of what we have done to impact the modern connected world from Australia.