What Does WiFi Stand for and How It Works?

We have gotten used to WiFi networks being virtually everywhere, allowing us to conveniently connect to the internet from computers and mobile devices alike without physical cables and complicated setup procedures.
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If you’ve ever used a WiFi analysis tool such as NetSpot, you probably also wondered what is WiFi and how does WiFi work, and that’s exactly what you’ll learn in this article.

What Is WiFi and What Does WiFi Stand for?

WiFi is the name given to a family of wireless network protocols that allow modern electronic devices, such as smartphones, laptops, and various Internet of Things gadgets, to wirelessly connect to a WiFi-enabled router in order to reach the internet.

What Is WiFi

WiFi protocols are based on the IEEE 802.11 family of standards for local area networking, which are created and maintained by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) LAN/MAN Standards Committee (IEEE 802). The first WiFi protocol was released in 1997, and it provided up to 2 Mbit/s link speeds.

Since then, multiple WiFi generations have been released, each offering faster speeds than the previous one. For example, the latest generation, WiFi 6, provides up to 9608 Mbit/s link speeds, making it almost 5000-times faster than the first generation.

Even though over 3 billion WiFi-enabled devices are shipped globally each year, not many people actually know what WiFi stands for — or they think they know but actually don’t. That’s because it’s often believed that WiFi means “Wireless Fidelity,” but that’s actually not the case.

In reality, WiFi doesn’t stand for anything at all because it’s a commercial brand name created by the brand-consulting firm Interbrand, a world-leading brand consultancy with over 45 years of experience. Interbrand was hired by the non-profit Wi-Fi Alliance, an organization that certifies devices for WiFi interoperability, to come up with a better name than IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence.

The main reason why so many people think that WiFi means Wireless Fidelity has everything to do with the advertising slogan "The Standard for Wireless Fidelity,” which was used for a brief time after the creation of the WiFi brand itself. There’s also the fact that Wi-Fi Alliance was referred to as the "Wireless Fidelity Alliance Inc" in some industry publications. Finally, IEEE helped spread the myth by stating on its website that WiFi is a short name for Wireless Fidelity.

How Does WiFi Work?

Similar to the traditional transistor radio, WiFi networks transmit information over the air using radio waves, which are a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light.

WiFi radio waves typically have the frequency of either 2.4 gigahertz or 5.8 gigahertz. These two WiFi frequency bands are then subdivided into multiple channels, with each channel possibly being shared by many different networks.

When you download a file over a WiFi network, a device known as a wireless router first receives the data from the internet via your broadband internet connection and then converts it into radio waves. The wireless router then emits the radio waves to the surrounding area, and the wireless device that has initiated the download request captures them and decodes them.

Because WiFi depends on radio waves, WiFi networks can be disrupted by interference caused by other WiFi networks or various electronic appliances, including microwave ovens, cordless telephones, refrigerators, televisions, transistor radios, or Bluetooth devices.

To ensure optimal WiFi performance, network administrators often rely on WiFi analyzers such as NetSpot to visualize, manage, and troubleshoot WiFi connections. NetSpot can generate a comprehensive visual map of WiFi networks, highlight areas of signal weakness, and reveal potential causes of interference. In the current era of omnipresent WiFi networks, a tool like NetSpot is indispensable even when setting up a basic WiFi home network.

NetSpot - WiFi analyzer

Even though NetSpot is used by professionals, it’s also suitable for home users who don’t have time to learn about the ins and outs of network administration yet still want to enjoy the WiFi speed they deserve and have paid for. NetSpot runs on any MacBook running macOS 10.10+ or any laptop with Windows 7/8/10/11.

Most Important WiFi Terminology

Now that we’ve explained what WiFi stands for and provided you with a widely accepted WiFi definition, it’s time to take a closer look at some of the most important WiFi terminology. As you can probably imagine, we can only scratch the surface of the IEEE 802.11 standard here, but knowing the terms described below should be enough to help you make wise purchasing decisions when buying a new WiFi router or selecting a new internet provider.

Wi-Fi Radio Spectrum

As we’ve already mentioned, WiFi is transmitted at the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies. In North America, the 2.4 GHz band is divided into 11 channels, with channels 1, 6, and 11 being non-overlapping. The 5 GHz band is divided into a much larger number of channels, with each country applying its own regulations to the allowable channels.

The biggest difference between the two frequency bands is the fact that the 5 GHz signal is only about half the range of the 2.4 GHz signal.

2.4GHz vs 5GHz

What’s worse, it has more trouble penetrating walls and solid objects. On the other hand, the 5 GHz band is far less crowded than the 2.4 GHz band, which is a huge advantage in heavily populated urban areas where WiFi networks are virtually everywhere.

802.11 Networking Standards

Most modern WiFi routers support the 802.11ac networking standard, which has a multi-station throughput of at least 1 gigabit per second and single-link throughput of at least 500 megabits per second (500 Mbit/s).

Many older WiFi routers only support the 802.11n networking standard, which has a maximum net data rate of 600 Mbit/s, and some even only support the 802.11g networking standard, which has a maximum net data rate of just 54 Mbit/s.

Since 802.11 networking standards are backward compatible, there’s no reason not to purchase a router that supports the latest 802.11n networking standard, which is 802.11ac.

WiFi Security Protocols

WiFi security protocols prevent unauthorized access or damage to computers using wireless networks. The most basic wireless security is Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). It was ratified in 1997 and declared deprecated in 2004 because of its security limitations.

WiFi security protocols

WEP was superseded by Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and Wi-Fi Protected Access II (WPA2), which became available in 2003 and 2004 respectively. Soon, WPA2 will be superseded by WPA3, which uses even stronger encryption and mitigates security issues posed by weak passwords.


Understanding WiFi meaning allows you to navigate the vast sea of different technologies and communication protocols. It also makes it easier to use a WiFi analyzer such as NetSpot. With it, you can optimize your home network for maximum performance and solve all common WiFi problems, such as interference, dead spots, or poor signal strength.

You can download NetSpot for free from its official website and join the hundreds of thousands of satisfied users who have successfully optimized their WiFi networks without any expert knowledge thanks to NetSpot.

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If you want to dive deeper into this Wi-Fi thing, check out the following articles about Wi-Fi security, the best apps for wireless networking, inflight WiFi, etc.
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