Wireless Local Area Networking Explained

Wireless LAN Definition and Examples

Woman at bedroom desk with husband in background
Thomas Barwick/Iconica/Getty Images

A wireless local area network (WLAN) provides wireless network communication over short distances using radio or infrared signals instead of traditional network cabling. A WLAN is a type of local area network (LAN).

A WLAN can be built using any of several different wireless network protocols, most commonly either Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

Network security remains an important issue for WLANs. Wireless clients usually must have their identity verified (a process called authentication) when joining a wireless LAN.

Technologies like WPA raise the level of security on wireless networks to rival that of traditional wired networks.

WLAN Pros and Cons

Wireless local area networks definitely have their advantages but we shouldn't overlook the downfalls:

Pros:

  • A large number of devices are supported
  • It's easy to set up a WLAN, especially when compared to laying cables for wired networks
  • Accessing a WLAN is easier than a wired LAN since cable length isn't a factor
  • WLANs are common even when away from a business or home, like in public areas

Cons:

  • It's easier to hack a WLAN, which is why encryption is necessary
  • Wireless interference can hijack the speed and stability of a wireless network
  • More wireless devices, like repeaters, are needed to expand a wireless network

WLAN Devices

A WLAN can contain as few as two devices up to one hundred and more. However, wireless networks become increasingly difficult to manage as the number of devices increases.

Wireless LANs can contain many different kinds of devices, including:

  • mobile phones
  • laptop and tablet computers
  • internet audio systems
  • gaming consoles
  • any other internet-enabled home appliance or device

WLAN Hardware and Connections

WLAN connections work via radio transmitters and receivers built into client devices.

Wireless networks don't require cables, but several special purpose devices (also possessing their own radios and receiver antennas) are usually used to build them.

Local Wi-Fi networks, for example, can be constructed in either of two modes: ad-hoc or infrastructure.

Wi-Fi ad-hoc mode WLANs consist of peer-to-peer direct connections between clients with no intermediate hardware components involved. Ad-hoc local networks can be useful to make temporary connections in some situations, but they don't scale to support more than a few devices and can also pose security risks.

A Wi-Fi infrastructure mode WLAN, on the other hand, utilizes a central device called a wireless access point (AP) that all clients connect to. In home networks, wireless broadband routers perform the functions of an AP plus enable the WLAN for home internet access. Multiple APs can be interfaced to either and connect multiple WLANs into a larger one.

Some wireless LANs exist to extend an existing wired network. This type of WLAN is built by attaching an access point to the edge of the wired network and set up the AP to work in bridging mode. Clients communicate with the access point through the wireless link and can reach the Ethernet network through the AP's bridge connection.

WLAN vs. WWAN

Cell networks support mobile phones connecting over long distances, a type of so-called wireless wide area networks (WWAN). What distinguishes a local network from a wide network are the usage models they support along with some rough limits on physical distance and area.

A local area network covers individual buildings or public hotspots, spanning hundreds or thousands of square feet. Wide area networks cover cities or geographic regions, spanning multiple miles.