Alex Hills once described his life as a quest to understand radio waves. He succeeded more spectacularly than most when he helped to build the first large wi-fi network.
Hills taught at UAF’s engineering department and directed the UA Computer Network in the 1980s and early 1990s.
But he first began experimenting with ham radio as a teenager in New Jersey. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York a few years later, he worked at the student radio station. After earning a master’s degree from Arizona State University in 1969, he came to Alaska and helped build the KNOM station in Nome. From there, he moved to KOTZ in Kotzebue, where he gained fame as “Alex in the Morning.” In the late 1970s, he was the first general manager of KSKA, the public radio station in Anchorage.
In the early 1970s, he also installed some of the first phone systems in rural Alaska for RCA Alascom, using radio repeaters to carry signals between mountaintop towers. Within a few years, the system was overtaken by the advent of satellite earth stations, a story Hills recounts in his 2016 book, “Finding Alaska’s Villages and Connecting Them.”
By the early 1980s, Hills was the state’s deputy commissioner of administration, working to improve telecommunications throughout Alaska.
In 1992, he left Alaska for Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While brainstorming in a cafeteria there, Hills and a fellow professor dreamed up the idea of creating the first large-scale wi-fi network. Using a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, by 1996 they had wi-fi working in seven campus buildings, Hills reported in his 2011 book, “Wi-Fi and the Bad Boys of Radio.”
They built the network to serve only Carnegie Mellon researchers. However, Hills soon came across a student using it to stream video from a laptop camera to a friend at MIT.
“He wanted to rub it in,” Hills wrote. “I began to think we were working on something more than just an interesting research project.”
Within a few more years, they had the campus outfitted with hundreds of wi-fi access points. Hills continued to refine wi-fi technology both at Carnegie Mellon and through private companies for several more years.
By 2010, he had returned to Alaska. He and his wife, Meg, who he met in Kotzebue, now live in Palmer.
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