What Is a Wireless Access Point?

Access Points Create Wireless Local Area Networks

Closeup of WLAN light on a wireless access point

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Wireless access points (APs or WAPs) are networking devices that allow Wi-Fi devices to connect to a wired network. They form wireless local-area networks (WLANs). An access point acts as a central transmitter and receiver of wireless radio signals.

Mainstream wireless APs support Wi-Fi and are most commonly used in homes, to support public internet hotspots, and in business networks to accommodate the proliferation of wireless mobile devices now in use. The access point can be incorporated into the wired router or stand alone.

If you or a co-worker use a tablet or laptop to get online, you are going through an access point — either hardware or built-in — to access the internet without connecting to it using a cable.

Wi-Fi Access Point Hardware

Stand-alone access points are small physical devices closely resembling home broadband routers. Wireless routers used for home networking have access points built into the hardware, and they can work with stand-alone AP units.

Several mainstream vendors of consumer Wi-Fi products produce access points, which allow business to supply wireless connectivity anywhere it can run an Ethernet cable from the access point to a wired router. AP hardware consists of radio transceivers, antennas, and device firmware.

Wi-Fi hotspots commonly deploy one or more wireless APs to support a Wi-Fi coverage area. Business networks also typically install APs throughout their office areas. While most homes require only one wireless router with an access point built in to cover the physical space, businesses often use many. Determining the optimal locations for access point installations can be a challenging task even for network professionals because of the need to cover spaces evenly with a reliable signal.

Using Wi-Fi Access Points

If the existing router doesn't accommodate wireless devices, which is rare, a homeowner can choose to expand the networks by adding a wireless AP device to the network instead of adding a second router, while businesses can install a set of APs to cover an office building. Access points enable Wi-Fi infrastructure mode networking.

Although Wi-Fi connections technically do not require the use of APs, they enable Wi-Fi networks to scale to larger distances and numbers of clients. Modern access points support up to 255 clients, while old ones supported only about 20. APs also provide bridging capability that enables a local Wi-Fi network to connect to other wired networks.

History of Access Points

The first wireless access points predated Wi-Fi. Proxim Corporation (a distant relative of Proxim Wireless today) produced the first such devices, branded RangeLAN2, starting in 1994. Access points achieved mainstream adoption soon after the first Wi-Fi commercial products appeared in the late 1990s.

While called WAP devices in earlier years, the industry gradually began using the term AP instead of WAP to refer to them (in part, to avoid confusion with Wireless Application Protocol), although some APs are wired devices.

In recent years, "smart" home virtual assistants have come into wide use. These include such products as Google Home and Amazon Alexa, which fit into a wireless network much like computers, mobile devices, printers, and other peripherals: via a wireless connection to an access point. They enable voice-activated interaction with the internet and can control an ever-growing list of home-related devices including lighting, thermostats, electrical appliances, televisions, and more, all through the Wi-Fi network that the access point enables.