Written by IEEE | February 25, 2020   |   Updated: March 25, 2020

Have you ever tried to send an image from your mobile device, wait for a web page to refresh or write an email with poor Internet connection? Did you feel frustrated that the tool was too slow and didn’t meet your expectations? We’ve all been there. We expect our Internet connection to be fast, but we never really stop to think about the underlying technology being used in the Internet infrastructure (Internet plumbing?) to give us the high-speed and quality content we care about most.

One of the most important elements to the success of the Internet even from its earliest days nearly 40 years ago is Ethernet. Bob Metcalfe, known as the Father of Ethernet, came together with peers to invent and develop the Ethernet local-area network (LAN) technology and its system of packet protocols. This allowed personal computers to efficiently share files and printers, a major advancement for its time.

But what was missing was a technical networking standard for Ethernet. A “universal recipe for packets” that would allow for multiple vendors (in the thousands) to build interoperable equipment and ultimately bring widespread Internet connectivity to the masses. Enter the brilliant engineers in the IEEE 802.3 Working Group, developers of one of the IEEE 802 family of standards.

“Ethernet provides all the necessary networking standards to ensure that everything interoperates with each other and it, therefore ‘disappears’ from the radar of nearly everyone as a concern,” explains the IEEE 802.3 Leadership Team, a team of volunteers which help set the standard’s specifications. “The global adoption and ubiquity of Ethernet standards ensure that manufacturers are able to build in very high volumes, which lowers the costs across the board and is a critical aspect of the success of the Internet. Without a common technology as the foundation of the internet, no one would have cost-effective, high-speed access to everything the Internet offers.”

As technology improved over time, Ethernet enabled wireless access points to efficiently and cost effectively be used for multiple wireless connections. Often, Ethernet gets overshadowed by the end-user visibility/awareness of the wireless connection Wi-Fi offers (no more crawling under tables to plug into a connection!). But you might not realize that the two technologies need each other to thrive.

“When you look at every Wi-Fi access point in the ceiling near you, it has a wired Ethernet cable supplying both power, through Power over Ethernet and data sending the traffic into the networks that form the on-ramps to the Internet,” says the IEEE 802.3 Leadership Team. “So you could argue that Wi-Fi is fully dependent on wired Ethernet, but it is really just another option of how to access the wider Ethernet-based internet that is complementary to those wired Ethernet cables that are still widely used.”

March 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of 802, IEEE’s family of technical standards for network connectivity. We’re looking back at the rapid growth of the Internet and its impact on our society and how the first standards for Ethernet connected our modern world.

“40 years ago, it was a nascent concept to connect computers together to communicate,” says the IEEE 802.3 Leadership Team. “Without IEEE 802’s continual and sustained focus on supporting what the networking industry needed, it is inconceivable that we would be enjoying the experiences and conveniences that we do and that impact every aspect of our lives.”

The thousands of engineers participating in developing 802 networking standards have paved the way for innovation in connectivity that has changed and continually influences our lives in ways large and small. Join us in taking a look at the technology of 802 and the accomplishments in creating technical standards that allow us to enjoy the hyper-connected world we have today.

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