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What is a WiFi® Network?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 17, 2024
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A Wi-Fi® or WiFi® network is the most familiar type of wireless network used to connect computers and share online access at home or at the office. A WiFi® network does not require cabling, but broadcasts network traffic over radio waves. It does this using a central device that is often three components in one: a network hub, router, and high-speed Internet modem. For simplicity we'll refer to this device as a router, though in some cases the router, which has a built-in hub, is purchased separately from the modem.

Each machine on a WiFi® network must have an installed WiFi® card or an external WiFi® adapter. These devices incorporate a receiver and transmitter to send and receive data over the network to the router. Broadcast range varies up to 300 feet (~100m) or more, but is fairly centralized, creating what is termed a local area network (LAN). The WiFi® router, cards and adapters use a common language or protocol to communicate that is compliant with a standard known as IEEE 802.11.

Within the 802.11 standard there are different generations of protocols, each designated by an additional letter. Generations to date include 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g and 802.11n. The first two flavors are now legacy, but as of spring 2009, 802.11g is still in widespread use with the newer and faster 802.11n on the road to replacing it.

All WiFi® components in the network must support the same flavor or generation of 802.11 standards to communicate. If the router only supports 802.11g, the WiFi® cards and adapters must also support 802.11g. If the router supports 802.11n, the cards and adapters must also support 802.11n.

Some routers, cards and adapters manufactured during transitional periods between changing standards will be designed to support both the current and the new protocol for maximum flexibility. These devices will be more expensive since the “g” and “n” networks utilize different frequency bands, requiring two radios instead of just one.

Components made for a WiFi® network might be certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Certification ensures the product is fully compliant with the standard(s) it supports. Only a wireless network that has certified components is a true Wi-Fi® network by technical standards, as Wi-Fi® is a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance. However, “WiFi” or “wifi” has been generalized to mean any wireless network that complies with 802.11 whether components are officially certified or simply marketed as compatible.

When setting up a WiFi® network it’s best to use the newest technology available in order to future-proof the investment. For home use, non-certified WiFi® components might save a little money and will more than likely do the job just fine. If setting up a wireless network for a business, a true Wi-Fi network with certified components that have been fully tested and are known to be fully compliant might be a more prudent choice.

The 802.11 standards used in a WiFi® network differentiate it from other types of wireless communications that use radio waves, such as Bluetooth® networks. Bluetooth uses a weaker, less robust radio band that travels a much shorter distance of up to about 30 feet (~10m). Bluetooth is primarily designed to connect battery-operated personal devices to one another for interoperability, creating a personal area network (PAN). Bluetooth might be used to pass files from a cell phone to a computer, to synchronize a personal digital assistant with a laptop, or to connect a wireless headset with a cell phone or MP3 player.

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Discussion Comments

By ronburg44 — On Dec 05, 2010

Many people think that the limitations of a Wi-Fi network within our home are constrained by the use of the wireless network only to Internet connectivity. This is simply not the case. By using your wireless network for other things than just Internet connection you are going to make the use of your equipment even better and more beneficial to your entertainment.

More and more manufacturers are bringing to the market the ability to send a wireless video and audio signals via a Wi-Fi computer network. This means that you can transmit a wireless audio signal from your laptop playing music into your home stereo even if they are not connected via wires. This appeals to many people who want to be able to control their music from their laptop but not have to get up and change the volume or even use a remote control to change the volume. Doing simple things like changing to the next song or fast-forward and rewinding are basic tasks that can be completed via a Wi-Fi network. The ability to send a video signal over a Wi-Fi network is also very appealing to many home technology enthusiasts.

As video content delivery becomes more ubiquitous over the Internet and more and more people decide that this is the best means of delivery for them, you will see more advancements in technology that allow for wireless video signals to be transmitted over a Wi-Fi home network.

By spreadsheet — On Dec 03, 2010

I think that one major risk that many people overlook when using a Wi-Fi network inside of their home is a security risk that it brings to their house. It was very obvious during the first few years of Wi-Fi network technology, that security was a major flaw within the technology. Since then major advancements have been made in making our wireless networks more secure, but the ability for hackers to break into our wireless networks is still very prevalent.

When you set up a Wi-Fi network within your home, you need to make sure that you read all of the manufacturers instructions of the router that is serving the Wi-Fi connection. By reading these instructions and manual you will then learn what it takes to properly secure your network. Only when you use the proper type of encryption on your network will you be able to thwart hackers attempts to stealing your personal data. Beyond stealing your personal data, there is one other thing that hackers are looking for when searching through your wireless networks. The ability to use your Internet connection is a very valuable one, and you don't want people surrounding you stealing your Internet bandwidth.

Large Wi-Fi networks that surround our local neighborhoods can also be a major security concern. Going to your local coffee shop that offers free Wi-Fi opens you up to attacks from other users that are on that wireless network. One must be very careful to make sure that their computer is properly secured from such wireless networks.

By NightChef — On Dec 01, 2010

I cannot even imagine what it would be like to live without a WiFi network configuration within my home. This amazing technology has made using my laptop a dream. No longer am I stuck to a cord connected to my router or high-bandwidth modem. Now I can walk around the house with ease-of-use and continue my work whether I'm in the kitchen is room or living room.

Because of this amazing wireless technology, I am able to still watch my news program on the Internet, why make my sandwich in the kitchen. I simply set my laptop down next to me and continue with my day while still being able to get the information on a constant flow. Some might argue that this kind of connectivity means that we would become dependent on Internet communications to the point where we can't live without it, and admittedly, I don't want to live without it. The same something like that and using that argument as a means to not use a Wi-Fi network is similar to saying that we can come dependent on vehicles and cars because of their use. Should we not use automobiles because we might someday become dependent on them? I think not, and while we have definitely become dependent on automobiles, this is no reason to deny the technology. What we should do, is actually use the technology for everything it's worth as long as we possibly can, as long as it isn't detrimental to any other part of our society.

Because wireless Internet technologies have advanced so much I think that one day will be able to rid our world of cables that clutter our desks and offices. I look forward to this day but I also look forward to better technology that can make our Internet wireless communications more secure. Internet security will play a dominant role within information technology of the future and only when we have a proper grasp on what it means to have a secure network, can we truly trust the benefits of information technology has brought to our society.

By Burlap — On Nov 28, 2010

I will never forget when wireless network technology finally came to the market for consumers. At the time I was working at RadioShack I had never seen anything like it. Only in my wildest dreams as a little boy have I tried using cordless phones to make modem communication possible over a wireless connection, but until this technology came to the forefront we were not able to achieve true Internet connectivity through a wireless means.

It was only a matter of time before data communications were able to hit the airwaves. And should come as no surprise that we made such a technological breakthrough, but to be able to bring this relatively complicated process of digitalizing information and sending it via a radio communication, was a very large task to actually bring to consumer level.

When the Federal Communications Commission opened up the 2.4 GHz bandwidth and made available for consumers, technology manufacturers were able to harness this very useful band and apply it towards communications within the computer market. Traditionally this band had been used for cordless phones and other types of communications, but never before Wi-Fi wasn't actually able to transmit and receive computer communications over the air.

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