Understanding Wi-Fi and How it Works

Wi-Fi is a wireless networking protocol used all around the globe

Wi-Fi is a wireless networking protocol that allows devices to communicate without direct cable connections. It's technically an industry term that represents a type of wireless local area network protocol based on the 802.11 IEEE network standard.

Hand holding tablet with wifi icon with an urban backdrop.
Prasit photo / Getty Images

Wi-Fi is the most popular means of communicating data wirelessly, within a fixed location. It's a trademark of the ​Wi-Fi Alliance, an international association of companies involved with wireless LAN technologies and products.​

Wi-Fi is commonly mistaken as an acronym for wireless fidelity when in fact, it's not an acronym at all. It's also sometimes spelled as wifi, Wifi, WIFI or WiFi, but none of these are officially approved by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Wi-Fi is also used synonymously with the word "wireless," but wireless is actually much broader.

How Wi-Fi Works

The easiest way to understand Wi-Fi is to consider an average home or business. The main requirement for Wi-Fi is that there's a device that can transmit the wireless signal, like a router, phone, or computer.

In a typical home, a router transmits an internet connection coming from outside the network, like an ISP, and delivers that service to nearby devices that can reach the wireless signal. Another way to use Wi-Fi is a Wi-Fi hotspot so that a phone or computer can share its wireless or wired internet connection, similar to how a router works.

No matter how the Wi-Fi is being used or what its source of connection is, the result is always the same: a wireless signal that lets other devices connect to the main transmitter for communication, like to transfer files or carry voice messages.

Wi-Fi, from the user's perspective, is just internet access from a wireless-capable device like a phone, tablet or laptop. Most modern devices support Wi-Fi so that it can access a network to get internet access and share network resources.

Is Wi-Fi Always Free?

There are tons of places to get free Wi-Fi access, like in restaurants and hotels, but Wi-Fi isn't free just because it's Wi-Fi. What determines the cost is whether the service has a data cap.

For Wi-Fi to work, the device transmitting the signal must have an internet connection, which is not free. For example, if you have the internet at your house, you're probably paying a monthly a fee to keep it coming. If you use Wi-Fi so that your iPad and Smart TV can connect to the internet, those devices don't have to pay for the internet individually but the incoming line to the home still costs regardless of whether or not Wi-Fi is used.

However, most home internet connections don't have data caps, which is why it's not a problem to download hundreds of gigabytes of data each month. However, phones usually do have data caps, which is why Wi-Fi hotspots are something to look for and use when you can.

If your phone can only use 10 GB of data in a month and you have a Wi-Fi hotspot set up, while it's true that other devices can connect to your phone and use the internet as much as they want, the data cap is still set at 10 GB and it applies to any data moving through the main device. In that case, anything over 10 GB used between the Wi-Fi devices will push the plan over its limit and accrue extra fees.

Setting up Wi-Fi Access

To set up your own Wi-Fi at home, you need a wireless router and access to the router's admin management pages to configure the right settings like the Wi-Fi channel, password, and network name.

It's usually pretty simple to configure a wireless device to connect to a Wi-Fi network. The steps include ensuring that the Wi-Fi connection is enabled and then searching for a nearby network to provide the proper SSID and password to make the connection.

Some devices don't have a wireless adapter built-in, in which case you can buy your own Wi-Fi USB adapter.

You can also share your internet connection with other devices to create a wireless hotspot from your computer. The same can be done from mobile devices, such as with the Hotspotio Android app.