What Is a Wireless Access Point?

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Wireless access points (APs or WAPs) are special-purpose communication devices on wireless local area networks (WLANs). Access points act as a central transmitter and receiver of wireless radio signals. Mainstream wireless APs support Wi-Fi and are most commonly used to support public Internet hotspots and other business networks where larger buildings and spaces need wireless coverage.

The term base station is sometimes used to refer to wireless access points, particularly those used in cellular networking.

A local network device called a femtocell acts as a cell network base station.

Wi-Fi Access Point Hardware

Access points are small physical devices closely resembling home broadband routers. Wireless routers used for home networking have these access points built into the hardware, and can work together with standalone AP units. Several mainstream vendors of consumer Wi-Fi products also produce access points. AP hardware consists of radio transceivers, antennas and device firmware.

Wi-Fi hotspots commonly deploy one or more wireless APs to support their Wi-Fi coverage area. Business networks also typically install APs throughout their office areas. While most homes only require one wireless router (AP) to cover the physical space, businesses may use many of them. Determine the optimal locations for where to install a set of APs can be a challenging task even for network professionals due to the need to cover spaces with a reliable signal.

Using Wi-Fi Access Points

Homeowners can choose to expand their network by adding a wireless AP device to their network instead of adding a second router, while businesses can install a set of APs to cover an office building. Access points enable so-called Wi-Fi infrastructure mode networking.

Although Wi-Fi connections do not technically 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 very old ones supported only about 20). APs also provide bridging capability that enables a local Wi-Fi network to connect to other wired networks.

Access Points on Cell Networks

Some phone networks also employ a different kind of wireless access point for cellular communications. Mobile devices use an Access Point Name (APN) to connect to them.

History of Access Points

The first wireless access points predated Wi-Fi. A company called 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.