Useful Facts About How Wi-Fi Works

Essential Wi-Fi basics

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One of the world's most popular network technologies, Wi-Fi connections support millions of people in homes, businesses and public locations around the world. It is such a common part of our everyday lives now that it's easy to take Wi-Fi for granted, it can be forgiven if you don't know the basics of how Wi-Fi works.

Here's a primer on Wi-Fi essentials to give you a better understanding of how it works.

Wireless Broadband Routers Are Also Wi-Fi Access Points

An access point (AP) is a type of wireless hub useful for coordinating the network traffic of multiple clients. One reason why wireless broadband routers make home networks much easier to build is that they function as Wi-Fi access points. Home routers perform other useful functions, too, such as running a network firewall.

Wi-Fi Connections Do Not Require an Access Point

Some people think they need to find a router, a public hotspot or another kind of access point in order to set up Wi-Fi connections. Not true!

Wi-Fi also supports a connection type called ad hoc mode that allows devices to connect directly to one another in a simple peer-to-peer network. Learn more about how to set up an ad hoc Wi-Fi network.

Not All Wi-Fi Types Are Compatible

Industry vendors created the first version of Wi-Fi (802.11) back in 1997. The market for consumer products exploded starting in 1999 when both 802.11a and 802.11b became official standards.

Some believe that any Wi-Fi system can network with any other Wi-Fi system as long as all their security settings match. While it's true that 802.11n, 802.11g and 802.11b Wi-Fi standard equipment can network together, the 802.11a standard is not compatible with any of these others. Special Wi-Fi access points that support both 802.11a and 802.11b (or higher) radios must be used to bridge the two.

Other compatibility issues also can arise between Wi-Fi products from different vendors if both build their Wi-Fi equipment using non-standard proprietary extensions. Fortunately, compatibility limitations like these are not often found nowadays.

Wi-Fi Connection Speed Varies With Distance

When you join a Wi-Fi network and the access point is nearby, your device will typically connect at its maximum rated speed (e.g., 54 Mbps for most 802.11g connections).

As you move away from the AP, though, your reported connection speed will drop to 27 Mbps, 18 Mbps, and lower.

A cleverly-designed feature of Wi-Fi called dynamic rate scaling causes this phenomenon. Wi-Fi maintains a reliable connection over longer distances when it transfers data more slowly by avoiding flooding the wireless connection with data and retry requests that happen when one network client starts to fall behind on processing its messages.

A Wi-Fi Network Can Span Large Distances or Very Short Ones

The typical range of a Wi-Fi network varies depending on the type of obstructions the radio signals encounter between connection endpoints. While 100 feet (30m) or more range is typical, a Wi-Fi signal may fail to reach even half that distance if heavy obstructions exist in the radio signal's path.

If an administrator buys the best Wi-Fi range extending devices, they can extend the reach of their network to overcome these obstructions and expand its range in other directions. A few Wi-Fi networks spanning 125 miles (275 km) and more have even been created by network enthusiasts over the years.

Wi-Fi Is Not the Only Form of Wireless Networking

News articles and social sites sometimes refer to any kind of wireless network as Wi-Fi. While Wi-Fi is extremely popular, other forms of wireless technology are in widespread use also. Smartphones, for example, commonly use a combination of Wi-Fi together with cellular internet services based on 4G LTE or older 3G systems.

Bluetooth wireless remains a popular way to connect phones and other mobile devices each other (or to peripherals like headsets) over shorter distances.

Home automation systems employ different kinds of short-range wireless radio communications such as Insteon and Z-Wave.

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