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How Does WiFi Work?

In this article, we explain everything you need to know about WiFi in a language anyone can understand.
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Unless you live in the country, it’s almost guaranteed that you spend most of your days within the range of WiFi. You probably connect to a WiFi network at home, during your morning commute, and while you’re at work or school. But have you ever wondered what WiFi actually is and how does it work?

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What is WiFi?

WiFi is a networking technology that allows devices to wirelessly connected to the internet and exchange information. There are several mutually compatible version of WiFi, and they are all based on the IEEE 802.11 family of standards, which specify the set of protocols for implementing wireless local area network communication in various frequencies.

The first version of WiFi was released in 1997 and updated in 1999. The updated version is now referred to either as Wi‑Fi 1 or 802.11b. It was able to achieve speeds of up 11 Mbit/s. In comparison, the latest version of WiFi, called Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ax, claims a combined 11 Gbit/s of theoretical data rates.

What Does WiFi Stand for?

The IEEE committee that created the 802.11 standards in 1997 was well-aware that their world-changing technology lacks a catchy name that would be easy to market, which is how the name “WiFi” came to be, mimicking the already popular term “HiFi” (High Fidelity).

WiFi even rhymes with HiFi, and all native speakers of English pronounce "i"s as the "i" in the word "fire." Watch this YouTube video to hear how to properly pronounce the word WiFi.

How Does WiFi Work?

WiFi-enabled devices communicate with one another by sending and receiving radio waves, a type of electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light. More specifically, they use either the 2.4 GHz or the 5 GHz frequency.

What Is a WiFi Router?

At the center of a WiFi network is a WiFi router, an electronic device whose purpose is to provide access to the internet or a private computer network. Many different devices, including computers, smartphones, and various WiFi-enabled gadgets and appliances can connect to a single router as long as they are within its range.

Most WiFi routers can reach up to 150 feet (46 m) indoors and 300 feet (92 m) outdoors when operating on the 2.4 GHz frequency. WiFi routers that broadcast exclusively on the 5 GHz frequency typically have a smaller range, but they are more immune to interference caused by other devices emitting electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum longer than infrared light.

Is WiFi Secure?

To address concerns over WiFi security, WiFi routers support various protocols like WPA, WPA2, and WPA3, which provide a high level of assurance that only authorized users can access their wireless networks. A properly secured WiFi router requires users to authenticate with a password or certificate, and it encrypts all transmitted data, making it impossible for anyone to steal and analyze it.

WiFi security protocols are especially important when it comes to securing public WiFi hotspots, which are places with an accessible wireless network.

Businesses often set up WiFi hotspots to attract customers and offer them free internet access, but a WiFi hotspot can be created by anyone — including cybercriminals with malicious intentions, which is why it’s important to avoid unsecured WiFi hotspots, which allow data to move without any form of encryption or security protection.

Advantages of WiFi

WiFi has many important advantages over wired connections:

Convenience: Being able to connect to the internet or other WiFi devices from anywhere is undeniably convenient. This has become especially true in the era of mobile devices, which can reach their full potential only with a reliable, fast connection to the internet.

Scalability: A single WiFi router can connect many different devices to the internet, and it doesn’t cost anything to add a new device.

Cost: WiFi routers have become very affordable, and anyone can purchase a fairly capable WiFi router for the price of a fancy dinner.

Disadvantages of WiFi

However, WiFi also has some noteworthy disadvantages:

Interference: The quality of a WiFi signal can be negatively affected by various electronic devices and appliances that emit electromagnetic waves in the radio spectrum, which includes CCTV cameras, radios, and cellular phones.

Security: A certain steps need to be taken to ensure that a WiFi network is secure and encrypted. The good news is that all modern WiFi routers support strong WiFi security protocols, and most use them by default.

Reliability: Because it’s impossible to see where the reach of a WiFi signal ends, WiFi networks can be somewhat unreliable. A WiFi network analyzer can reveal all areas of signal weakness and help eliminate them.

Is WiFi Dangerous?

The fact that WiFi routers and other devices emit electromagnetic radiation sounds scary, but the fact is that WiFi technology is perfectly safe.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a specialized agency of the United Nations that is concerned with international public health, there is no established scientific evidence of adverse health effects below current exposure limits.

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency is of the same opinion, as are other national and international health authorities, including the Government of Canada, the  International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection, the  Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the New Zealand Ministry of Health.

The reason why WiFi isn’t dangerous has everything to do with the fact that Wi-Fi is a type of non-ionizing radiation and doesn’t have enough energy to break chemical bonds in living tissues. X-ray machines, for example, are dangerous because they emit ionizing radiation, which is why it’s important to minimize exposure to them.

What’s more, the average person is exposed to far more electromagnetic radiation from radio or television broadcast transmitters than WiFi routers and other devices.

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Wi-Fi Site Surveys, Analysis, Troubleshooting runs on a MacBook (macOS 10.10+) or any laptop (Windows 7/8/10) with a standard 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wireless network adapter.