Understanding Wi-Fi and How It Works

Wi-Fi is a wireless networking protocol used worldwide

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

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

Hand holding tablet with Wi-Fi icon with an urban backdrop.
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Wi-Fi is the most frequently used means of communicating data wirelessly in a fixed location. It's a trademark of the ​Wi-Fi Alliance, an international association of companies involved with wireless LAN technologies and products.​

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 a device that receives and transmits a wireless signal, usually a router, but sometimes a phone or computer.

In a typical home or small business, a router receives and then transmits an internet connection coming from an internet service provider outside the network. It delivers that service to nearby devices that can reach the wireless signal. Most homes have one router and multiple devices, including smartphones, desktop and laptop computers, tablets, and smart TVs, that receive their internet connection via Wi-Fi from that router.

In some cases, a user without a router can set up a phone or computer as a Wi-Fi hotspot so it can share the device's wireless or wired internet connection with other devices, similar to the way a router works.

No matter how Wi-Fi is 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, entertainment, file transfers, voice messages, or other data transmision.

Is Wi-Fi Free?

There are tons of places to get free Wi-Fi access, such as in restaurants and hotels, but Wi-Fi isn't free in all cases. That's because for Wi-Fi to work, the router or other device transmitting the signal must have an internet connection, which isn't free.

For example, if you have internet service at your house, you pay a monthly fee to keep it coming. If you use Wi-Fi to connect your iPad and smart TV to the internet, you don't pay for the internet for those devices individually. The incoming line to the home router costs whether or not you use Wi-Fi.

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 often have data caps. Phone users look for free Wi-Fi signals and use Wi-Fi hotspots whenever they can to keep down their cellular data usage volume.

It has become increasingly easy to access free hotspots, particularly in large cities. The trick is to find one near where you want to use it.

If your phone has a data cap and you allow other devices to connect to your phone as a hotspot to access the internet, your data cap applies to any data moving through the main phone. This activity can quickly push a cellular data plan over its limit and accrue extra fees.

You can also share your internet connection with other devices to create a wireless hotspot from your computer. You can do the same with apps, such as with the Wifi Hotspot Portable app.

Set Up Wi-Fi Access

To set up Wi-Fi at home, you need a wireless router and access to the router's admin management pages to configure the correct settings such as the Wi-Fi channel, password, and network name. Some of this information is provided by your internet service provider.

It's usually straightforward 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 built-in wireless adapter, in which case, you can buy a Wi-Fi USB adapter.

Advantages of Using Wi-Fi

The vast majority of computers and mobile devices sold in the U.S. are equipped with wireless capabilities, including Wi-Fi. The benefits of using Wi-Fi over a wired connection include:

  • Convenience: Wi-Fi makes it possible for devices to connect to the internet wherever they can locate a Wi-Fi signal, and those locations are increasing all the time.
  • Productivity: Wi-Fi can keep workers in near-constant contact with the office and each other.
  • Expandability: Buy another tablet? No problem. Enable Wi-Fi in its settings, and it's good to go.
  • Mobility: Users aren't tied to the office or home for their communication needs.

Disadvantages of Using Wi-Fi

The advantages of using Wi-Fi outweigh the disadvantages, but there are some advantages.

  • Range: A Wi-Fi signal reaches a limited range, which may not cover your entire home or office.
  • Security: Because wireless signals travel through the air, they can be intercepted. Using encryption technology minimizes the danger.
  • Disruption: Large metal objects, such as a refrigerator, can block a Wi-Fi signal in your home. A microwave oven can also disrupt the signal.

Despite an urban legend to the contrary, Wi-Fi signals are not hazardous to the health of humans.