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Life in Alaska

Wi-Fi Pioneer Learned How to Handle Radio ‘Bad Boys’ While Bringing Telecom to Bush

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A former UAF professor says the years he spent operating radio stations in the Alaskan Bush gave him the know-how to build the first wi-fi network – at Carnegie Mellon University, in New York. Alex Hills has written a book that tells how he developed the technology that now enables people around the world to connect to the web wirelessly.

Alex Hills came to Alaska in the early 1970s to help build a communications system for villages in the Bush. Because, he says, their ability to communicate was pretty limited.
"Back in those days, more than 40 years ago, the telecommunications system in most villages was very simple. It was a short-wave radio.”
Short-wave gave residents of the Bush at least some contact with the outside world, but Hills says the technology had a lot of limitations.
“Short-wave radio was very unreliable, especially in the far north,” he says, “and a lot of that is because of the northern lights, the aurora borealis. Although it makes a nice light show, it badly disrupts short-wave radio communication.”
And that’s when Hills first began working against what he calls “the bad boys of radio.”
 “The bad boys,” he says, “are the gremlins. They’re the little guys that make those radio waves do funny things. And when you’re trying to get a reliable communication link, the bad boys will try to mess you up, every time.”
In his book, titled “Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio,” Hills talks a lot about overcoming the challenges of improving communications in the Bush.
He also outlines his brief career in the radio business, when he helped establish public-radio stations in Nome, Kotzebue, Bethel and Dillingham. Hills says it was during that time in the 1970s and ’80s that he hosted the “Alex in the Morning” show, out of K-O-T-Z, in Kotzebue.
“…Where I held the grandiose title of general manager and chief engineer. It sounded like a pretty good title, but what it really meant was that I was the first one there in the morning to make the coffee, and mundane chores like that,” he says.
Even though the bad boys made his job more difficult, Hills says the experience of overcoming those technical challenges benefited him later on – in 1993, after he left a teaching job at UAF to take a job as a professor of electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, and soon thereafter took on the challenge of developing technology to enable users to wirelessly connect to the Internet.

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“That was the knowledge that was critical in building that very first Wi-Fi system at Carnegie Mellon University,” Hills says.
After a couple of years, Hills and some colleagues and grad students finally worked out the bugs in a reliable wireless Internet-access system. Soon thereafter, in 1996, he got a glimpse of how this new wireless technology might just catch on. That insight came about as an unanticipated result of Carnegie Mellon’s efforts to restrict use of the new wireless system to researchers.
“We were afraid that if there were other people on there, that the network would become overloaded and wouldn’t be useful for its real purpose. So we had put some controls in effect which were authentication – password – type of controls. So you couldn’t use the network, unless you had a password.”
And soon, students being students...
“Well guess what? Carnegie Mellon students are smart. And they figured out a way to hack their way onto the network. It didn’t take too long and we had more students on there than researchers. That was when the light bulb came on. And I thought, ‘Hmmm, maybe we’re onto to something here.’”
And as they say, the rest is history.
These days, Hills lives in Palmer and stays busy. He’s writing another book, and he speaks and consults. He also teaches at UAA and still holds the title of Distinguished Service Professor of Engineering and Public Policy and Electrical & Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon.