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Wireless Internet and the Alaska connection

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Posted: Saturday, May 5, 2012 10:49 pm

FAIRBANKS - Alaskans, like pretty much everyone these days, love their wireless devices. Drop into any coffee shop, bookstore or library and you’ll see numerous people glued to laptops and tablets. Log into your Facebook account and you’ll likely find a mobile update from some friend who’s enduring an airport layover. And, if you’re truly brave, go for a jog alongside a highway and start dodging cars and trucks driven by people paying more attention to their smartphones than to their surroundings.

What most Alaskans might not realize is that their state has a historic connection to the connectivity that now follows us everywhere. Alex Hills, a retired Carnegie Mellon University professor who played a key role in the development of wireless Internet during the 1990s, and who is now retired and living in Palmer, helped bring radio and telephone service to rural Alaska in the 1970s. The technical problems he faced there, and the solutions he devised for them, gave him some of the background knowledge he needed to resolve the challenges he faced two decades later in bringing one of the country’s first large, wireless networks online.

In his breezy and enjoyable memoir, “Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio,” Hills tells the story of how his teenage obsession with radio in the 1950s ultimately led him down a career path that put him in the center of one of the most significant technological advances in recent memory.

As a high school student in New Jersey he was already a technology fanatic, spending more time tinkering with his ham radio and communicating by Morse code with people halfway around the planet than with his classmates. It was at this early point that Hills first encountered what he refers to as “The Bad Boys of Radio.”

Contrary to what readers might guess, it isn’t the people working in radio he’s talking about but the radio waves themselves. Presumably they operate in a predictable fashion, but in practice they have a tendency to misbehave. Finding a way to get the Bad Boys to do what he wanted would prove to be a problem that bedeviled Hills throughout his career.

After sharing the radio days of his youth, Hills jumps to the early 1970s when he helped get KOTZ-AM up and running in Kotzebue. As manager-engineer, he was tasked with keeping the station on the air, a job complicated by problems many people might not have anticipated, including interference from the aurora borealis as well as, surprisingly, permafrost.

While living in Kotzebue, Hills also helped bring rural phone service to the villages of Northwest Alaska. Given the geography and the large distances between the tiny towns scattered across the landscape, radio service was the only viable option for meeting the need. Hills outlines the installation of the VHF system and the obstacles he faced, work that would prepare him for the similar troubles he would later encounter with the higher frequency UHF band that wireless networks operate on.

Jumping ahead to the early 1990s, Hills was by this point a professor at Carnegie Mellon and part of the school’s Information Networking Institute. Casting about for a new project, he and his fellow faculty members decided that providing a campus-wide wireless network for researchers — and ultimately all the students and faculty — was just the challenge they needed.

Wireless Internet wasn’t unknown at the time, but the existing systems were slower than dial-up and couldn’t reach further than a room or two. As Hills and his associates puzzled out their system, they needed to find ways around the problems presented by signal reflection off of furniture and walls, dead zones where radio waves had difficulties reaching, keeping mobile devices connected as they roamed from one access point to another and plenty of other difficulties. Working with business partners, Hills’ team slowly but successfully overcame the obstacles, helping Carnegie Mellon build one of the first high-speed wireless networks and moving the technology forward, ultimately to the benefit of people everywhere.

Hills avoids the technical jargon and exhaustive details that geeks thrive on. Focusing more on the human side of the story, he’s written this book for general readers. When he does get scientific, it can be easily understood even by those who haven’t a clue how things like radio waves function. He has a fine talent for using examples that quickly clarify the concepts he’s explaining. For instance, when describing how VHF waves curve along with the earth’s surface, he offers sunlight refraction as a similar phenomenon, and the process immediately makes sense.

Hills’ writing style here is also appropriate for young adult readers, making this a good option for teenagers thinking of pursuing technology careers. Hills’ enthusiasm for his topic, infectious recollections of his youth, and ability to tell his story concisely will serve to encourage the next generation of techies who will be building on his accomplishments.

Hills ends the book in Palmer, where he and his wife have retired to and where wireless connectivity abounds. Taking a stroll through town, he notes the various signals detected by his smartphone. The very notion of such a thing, something most Alaskans hadn’t even conceived of 20 years ago, is now taken for granted. As Hills writes, “We are living in the future some imagined in the early 1990s. Seldom does the present match so closely a future that was envisioned nearly two decades earlier.”

In this book we meet one of the futurists who brought us our present. It’s a personal history — complete with an Alaska twist — that’s well worth knowing.

Freelance writer David A. James lives in Fairbanks.

Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio

Alex Hills

Dog Ear Publishing, 2011

162 pages • $16.95

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