Wi-Fi Wireless Bridging Explained

Wi-Fi range extenders are a variation on bridging

Teenage girl pointing at equipment mounted on wall to parents at home

 

Maskot/Getty Images

In computer networking, a bridge joins two networks so they can communicate with each other and serve as a single network. As Wi-Fi and other wireless networks expanded in popularity, the need to link these networks with one another and with older wired networks increased. Bridges make inter-network connections possible. This wireless bridging technology consists of both hardware and network protocol support.

Types of Wireless Bridges

Hardware that supports wireless network bridging includes:

  • Wi-Fi to Ethernet bridge: This hardware allows Wi-Fi clients to connect to an Ethernet network. This hardware is integrated with Wi-Fi wireless access points (APs) and is useful for older computers or devices that don't have Wi-Fi capability.
  • Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi bridge: This joins two Wi-Fi networks, often to increase the coverage area of a Wi-Fi hotspot. Some wireless AP hardware supports bridging in both Ethernet and Wi-Fi modes.
  • Bluetooth to Wi-Fi bridge: This connects devices that communicate with consumer Bluetooth gadgets and interface with a Wi-Fi home network.

Note

Some wireless bridges support only a single point-to-point connection to one other network, while others support point-to-multipoint connections to several networks.

Wi-Fi Bridge Mode

In Wi-Fi networking, bridge mode allows two or more wireless access points to communicate and join their respective local networks. These APs, by default, connect to an Ethernet LAN. Point-to-multipoint AP models support wireless clients while operating in bridge mode, but others can function only point to point and disallow any clients from connecting while in bridge-only mode; a network administrator controls this option. Some APs support bridging with other APs only from the same manufacturer or product family.

Changing a configuration option can enable or disable AP bridging capability if it's available. Normally, APs in bridging mode discover one another via Media Access Control (MAC) addresses that must be set as configuration parameters.

Functionality vs. Performance

While operating in Wi-Fi bridging mode, wireless APs can generate substantial network traffic; the amount depends on how much cross-network communication is taking place. Wireless clients connected to these APs usually share the same bandwidth as the bridge devices. As a result, client network performance tends to be lower when the AP is in bridging mode than when it's not.

Wi-Fi Repeater Mode and Wi-Fi Range Extenders

Repeater mode is a variation on bridging in Wi-Fi networking. Rather than connecting separate networks in a way that allows devices in each one to communicate with each other, repeater mode extends the wireless signal of one network to longer distances for greater reach.

Consumer products known as wireless range extenders work as Wi-Fi repeaters, expanding the range of a home network to cover dead spots or areas with weak signal.

Most new broadband routers are designed to work in repeater mode as an option that the administrator controls. Having the flexibility to choose between full support of a second router and Wi-Fi repeater support is appealing to many households as their home networks continue to grow.