Then and Now: GPS, Wi-Fi, and Social Media

In Part 5 of this ongoing series on the surprising start of our favorite technologies, we geo-locate ourselves with GPS, go wireless with Wi-Fi, and become influencers on social media.

The First Use of GPS

The global positioning system (GPS), as you might have guessed, has its origin in space, the final frontier. In 1957, Russia launched Sputnik, the first successful space satellite. Scientists at the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at John Hopkins University observing the strange radio signals discovered what became known as the Doppler Effect.

Utilizing the Sputnik’s Doppler Effect allowed the scientists to use radio signals to track the movement of the satellite from the ground. They later expanded the idea: If a satellite location could be determined from the ground via the frequency shift of its radio signal, then the location of a receiver on the ground could be determined by its distance from a satellite.

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In 1958, the US Defense Department Advanced Research Projects (ARPA) used the principle of the Doppler Effect to develop Transit, the world’s first global satellite navigation system.

By 1968, 36 satellites were operational with Transit technology which dramatically improved location accuracy and was credited with improving the accuracy of the maps of the earth. In 1996, the US Defense Department replaced Transit with the current GPS.

Fast forward to 2021 when just in US there are now more than 900 million GPS receivers in use. You’ll find them in cellphones, commercial trucks and buses, and railroads. More than 100 million cars have navigation systems. Ships, planes, and drones use GPS for navigation. Trucks use GPS not only for location services but also for electronic logging devices, which show whether drivers have been driving for too long and getting sleepy. Emergency responders use GPS rather than maps to locate accident sites and get people to the hospital. You don’t want to be waiting for the firetruck or ambulance when GPS is hacked or disrupted.

The above image points to some of the places that control the 30 operational GPS satellites operations in space as of April 12, 2022. With accuracy now at roughly 2 meters (6.5 feet), we are all hooked on GPS as our find everything technology.

First Use of Wi-Fi

The “Father of Wi-Fi” was Vic Hayes who was the first chair of the IEEE 802.11 group which in 1997 finalized the wireless standard that would operate in the frequency spectrum opened up in 1985 by the US Federal Communications Commission.

Interesting that I share a history with the employer of Hayes. The 1997 ruling sparked the interest of his then-employer NCR, which realized that a wireless standard would let the company, and its retailer customers, create a radio link between NCR cash registers and back-end mainframes. The radio link would make connecting the systems physically simpler, and eliminate the need to fiddle with proprietary protocols.

According to the Wireless Broadband Alliance, Wi-Fi today is delivering substantial positive economic, social, and environmental contributions which continue to exceed expectations.

My favorite from above—smartphones and IoT devices with Wi-Fi 6 have up to 67% lower power consumption with power-saving features. The pandemic was a dramatic accelerator for Wi-Fi usage and wireless and the internet are forever linked.

As the above Wireless Broadband Alliance infographic points out, much more needs to be done to unify the world through digital connectivity that Wi-Fi enables.

First Use of Social Media

Is there a Kevin Bacon to be found in the history of social media? Yes, if you consider that Six Degrees was the first online social media site.

Six Degrees is named after the ‘six degrees of separation‘ theory, which states that everyone in the world is connected to everyone else by no more than six degrees of separation. This is often called the ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon‘ theory, although Kevin Bacon himself is irrelevant to the phenomenon.

Started in 1997, Six Degrees at its peak had 3.5 million users. It was bought by YouthStream Media Networks in 1999 for $125 million, but it shot down in 2001.

In fast succession, here is what followed:

  • AmIHotorNot.com (Year 2000) – Invited users to submit photos of themselves so others could rate attractiveness. Site was sold a few times and tried to come back in 2014 as a game. Rumored to have influenced the creators of Facebook and YouTube.
  • Friendster (2002) – Originally a dating site, but it’s popularity and inability of company to respond led to user decline.
  • Myspace (2003) – Became go-to site for Friendster for millions of teens and site reached 25 millions users in 2005 when it was sold to NewsCorp where it started its decline.
  • The current leaders arrive (2003-2005) – LinkedIn appeared in 2003. Facebook was founded in 2004 and YouTube visually made its entrance in 2005 with this first video which as of this date has nearly 233 million views.

Fast forward to 2022 and an amazing 4.62 billion people are now social media users worldwide.

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Just over the past year, social media has added one million new users per day or roughly 13.5 new users every single second. Wonder where we spend our time on social media?

Expanded more convenient connectivity through GPS and Wi-Fi accelerated global digital communications through new platforms such as social media. Are we happy with the result? Where do we think all this will take us next?Tony D'Onofrio website