Inventor of Wi-Fi got insight from connecting Alaskans

Alex Hills is known as the inventor of Wi-Fi, but his work bringing public radio and telephones to rural Alaska in the 1970s prepared him for that work and remains among his proudest accomplishments.

He led the team that built the first Wi-Fi network at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, launching a revolution in mobile computing that has changed our lives. Afterward, Hills moved back to Palmer and remains involved in the community.

I first met Hills when he was the first general manager of Anchorage public radio station KSKA, where I was a volunteer announcer as a high school student in the late '70s (and where I still host shows). Later, I knew him as a leader at the University of Alaska and for his help running the city's phone utility.

Then, in 1998, I was astonished to read in Scientific American that he had innovated a network at Carnegie Mellon that allowed any student to get online from anywhere, without a network cable. The Web was still new, but it was obvious from the start this wireless technology would change everything.

Hills came to Alaska from military service in Korea looking for adventure. He started public radio station KOTZ in Kotzebue in 1973.

Today, while the Legislature considers eliminating operating funds for public broadcasting, it's worth remembering we began building the stations before the oil pipeline, when Alaskans paid income taxes.

Building a radio station in the Arctic presented interesting technical challenges. Hills also started the region's OTZ Telephone Cooperative and brought telephones for the first time to many rural villages, adapting satellite and radio technology to new purposes in a new environment. Technology he helped pioneer for low-power TV systems in rural Alaska was later adopted by the Federal Communications Commission for use nationwide.

"If you think it's impossible, just give it to an Alaskan," he said. "It's kind of part of being an American, and it's definitely part of being an Alaskan, having the gumption to give something a try."

That attitude — and Alaskan-style duct tape technology — helped at Carnegie Mellon. When Hills and his team were trying to figure out how to position wireless access points, he contributed the technique of duct-taping them to walls for temporary tests.

The technical challenges of rural Alaska communications translated directly to developing Wi-Fi. Early equipment allowing computers to communicate by radio already existed, but no one had found a way to connect them in a complex network that spanned buildings and ultimately the entire campus.

Hills initiated the project and got grant funding from the National Science Foundation and a partnership with an equipment maker — all before he was sure it would work. At times it looked like it wouldn't. But the group kept trying, improvising and using the knowledge, much of it gleaned in Arctic villages, of how radio waves get mixed up by the environment and can be made to behave.

Despite all that work, Hills doesn't like being called the inventor of Wi-Fi. He doesn't even like taking credit for the long-ago communications work in rural Alaska. Instead, our conversation was laced with names of others who deserved credit. His book, "Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio," constantly directs credit to others.

But it can't be a coincidence Hills happened to be there when amazing innovations happened. And he acknowledges setting up the network at Carnegie Mellon was his idea and managing the project was his job. He holds a number of patents and two companies spun off from his work, including one with a device that helps network administrators map radio waves in buildings and pick the best spots for Wi-Fi access points.

As Alaskans, there are a few lessons to draw from his life.

First, in this time of fiscal crisis, let's think carefully about what we get rid of to save money. Hills had barely left a job at the University of Alaska when he started the Wi-Fi work at Carnegie Mellon. The quality of the interdisciplinary science there and the institution's encouragement for innovation helped make it happen.

Pittsburgh had been devastated by an economic collapse of its own, when the steel industry left in the 1970s. But by investing in higher education, it has become a thriving and livable center of technology and health innovation. Carnegie Mellon grew from a midrange technical school to one of the world's top engineering and computer science centers.

Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, chairwoman of the committee overseeing the University of Alaska budget, recently suggested we eliminate all of its research funding. The legislative majorities seem to think in makes sense to cut the university to inferiority.

The other lesson I draw from Hills' story is his enthusiasm for making technology serve people. He didn't do his work seeking wealth or even primarily for a techie fix (although he obviously loves making things work). He made communications links so people could communicate.

The public radio stations he built in rural Alaska gave people there a much larger leap in communications than we got when Wi-Fi came along. Before KOTZ went on the air, news and messages were carried by hand or by unreliable two-way radios.

Hills and his colleagues adapted technology for the phone systems, installed them, and then taught village elders how to make phone calls. For the first time, young men away in the military could call home. The emotion of those first calls flowed to the technicians who had just put in the phones.

"Most village kids were going off to boarding school for high school, because they could only go up to the eighth grade in the villages. The parents really missed their kids," Hills said. "When we did the village telephones, that gave the parents the chance to at least call the kids and hear their voice over the phone."

Hills is still doing this kind of work, taking amazing engineering students to developing nations to solve problems, a program he wrote about in another book, "Geeks on a Mission."

As we worry today about money, it's worth thinking back to a time before we had it, when we were richer in at least one important way. We had the spirit and can-do outlook to invest in a guy like Alex Hills.

Charles Wohlforth's column appears three times weekly.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

Charles Wohlforth

Charles Wohlforth was an Anchorage Daily News reporter from 1988 to 1992 and wrote a regular opinion column from 2015 until 2019. He served two terms on the Anchorage Assembly. He is the author of a dozen books about Alaska, science, history and the environment. More at wohlforth.com.