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How Does Wi-Fi Work? A Comprehensive Guide

Smartphone Wi-Fi wifi network

How Does Wi-Fi Work? A Comprehensive Guide

Wi-Fi is one of those things we rely on every day, even if we don’t exactly know what it is or how it works. We understand it connects our devices and smart technology to the internet. Likewise, we also understand that these devices and other smart technologies can communicate with one another via Wi-Fi. But this doesn’t tell us anything about what Wi-Fi actually is. (Not to mention how it actually works.) As it turns out, Wi-Fi technology is a lot less difficult to understand than it initially seems. Here’s a comprehensive guide to explain how Wi-Fi works.

Wi-Fi Specs

First IntroducedSeptember 21st, 1997
PurposeFamily of wireless network protocols
StandardizationIEEE 802.11 family of standards
UsesLocal area networking of devices
Wireless internet access
Compatible DevicesPCs, video game consoles, smartphones, tablets, smart devices, TVs, printers, cameras
Primary TechnologyRadio waves

How Does Wi-Fi Work?

Wi-Fi — i.e. Wireless Fidelity — is a wireless technology that uses radio waves to send and receive data between two or more devices without the need for physical cables. In addition to facilitating wireless communication, Wi-Fi also allows these enabled devices to wirelessly connect to the internet. For a device to connect to Wi-Fi, it must first send the Wi-Fi router a request to join the network. The router will then respond with a unique identifier signal, also known as a Service Set Identifier (SSID). Once your device recognizes this signal, it can then connect to the network.

Once a device connects to a Wi-Fi network, it can both send and receive data wirelessly via radio waves. These radio waves travel through the air from the Wi-Fi router to the Wi-Fi receiver within the enabled device. The receiver is the part of the device responsible for converting these radio waves into understandable data for your device to interpret. This all takes place over one of two specific radio frequency bandwidths — either 2.4GHz or 5GHz. The higher the frequency, the faster the data is able to travel. However, the lower the frequency, the further the data can travel.

To prevent Wi-Fi signals from interfering with one another, every single Wi-Fi network is assigned a different channel within a particular frequency band. It’s typically the job of the Wi-Fi router to select the least congested channel to use at any given time. However, Wi-Fi network administrators (such as yourself, at least on your home Wi-Fi network) can manually select a channel as well. Of course, none of this would be possible without the proper hardware. Let’s break down some of the most essential hardware required for a functional Wi-Fi network.

Here is a quick video that explains how Wi-Fi works for further reference:

Wi-Fi Hardware

Each of the following pieces of hardware plays an important role in how Wi-Fi works. From the wireless access point to the Wi-Fi router to the wireless repeater and every other component in between, each one of these parts is necessary to create a fully functioning Wi-Fi network. Let’s spend some time explaining each one in turn.

Wireless Access Point

A Wireless Access Point enables wireless devices to connect to a wired network by acting as a bridge between the two. These access points effectively allow wireless devices to communicate with other wired devices such as an Ethernet hub or Ethernet switch and helps them work together in unison.

Wireless Adapter

Wireless adapters connect computers or other hard-wired devices to the wireless network. In doing this, it transforms the device from a wired device to a wireless one — allowing it to send and receive data to and from the router or access point over radio waves.

Wi-Fi Router

A Wi-Fi router is sort of like the central hub of the Wi-Fi network. It allows a number of different devices to wirelessly connect to the internet and communicate with each other at the same time. Through this one single connection, multiple devices are able to access the internet with ease. 

Network Bridges

To connect two or more Wi-Fi networks, you’ll need a network bridge. This hardware allows multiple networks to communicate with one another — something that wouldn’t be possible without it. A network bridge can also link a wired network to a wireless one, or bridge multiple network protocols together. 

Wireless Repeaters

A wireless repeater extends a wireless network’s range by retransmitting wireless signals it receives. This simple action boosts a Wi-Fi signal’s strength, helping it to overcome interference or other obstacles that could potentially disrupt the signal.

Embedded Systems

An embedded system is designed to help Wi-Fi-enabled devices perform a specific task (or tasks) within a larger system of devices. In other words, it’s a fancy term for something like a smart home system or other network of internet-of-things (IoT) devices.

A Wi-Fi router sits plugged in on a desk.
Wi-Fi works by relying on a network of important hardware, including routers, adapters, and access points.

The History of Wi-Fi

Given the sheer prevalence of Wi-Fi in our daily lives today, the default is to assume that Wi-Fi technology is a thoroughly modern invention. As it turns out, however, this isn’t exactly the truth. In reality, the origins of Wi-Fi date back as far as the 1970s and ‘80s. During this time, researchers, developers, and engineers alike spent countless hours experimenting with wireless communication. This resulted in the hypothesis that wireless communication technology could one day be used to connect computers and other devices together without using any physical cables whatsoever.

This experimentation inadvertently led to the development of a couple of other wireless networking technologies: Bluetooth and infrared. Wi-Fi wasn’t too far behind, though. Real, serious work on Wireless Fidelity began in the early 1990s. At this time, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) assembled a team to standardize some specific wireless networking protocols. These protocols would need to support high-speed, long-range data transfers completely wirelessly. We now know this iconic group as IEEE 802.11.

It took several years, but IEEE 802.11 was successfully able to develop the world’s first Wi-Fi standards in the year 1997. This new standard established link speeds no higher than 2 Mbit/s. By 1999, the group had already updated its standards to facilitate link speeds up to 11 Mbit/s. (It wasn’t much compared to what we’re used to today, but it was undoubtedly something.) That same year, they established the Wi-Fi Alliance: a trade association that continues to hold the Wi-Fi trademark most IEEE 802.11-enabled products are still sold under to this day.

How Does Wi-Fi Work in the 21st Century?

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the first commercially available Wi-Fi products began to emerge on store shelves nationwide. These early products included wireless access points, routers, adapters, and more — all of which we outlined above. While we consider all of these to be common, routine parts of a functional Wi-Fi network today, they were seen as newfangled technology at the time. They were expensive, signals weren’t very fast, and they couldn’t travel very far. It wasn’t until the early- to mid-2000s that the technology truly caught on.

As the development and advancement of new Wi-Fi technology accelerated throughout the early to mid-2000s, a number of new standards and practices needed to be developed in order to keep up. This was an absolute necessity, as these new standards would need to support the higher data transfer speeds and longer ranges the new technology was capable of. Some of these standards included IEEE 802.11a, which increased data transfer speed support up to 54 Mbps, and IEEE 802.11g, which supported an increased range over previous standards.

In the years since, Wi-Fi technology has never stopped evolving and improving to meet the demands of technology. Each new IEEE802.11 standard marks an increase in data transfer speeds and long-range communication, improved network and signal reliability, and beyond. Today, billions upon billions of devices rely on Wi-Fi. It has singlehandedly facilitated multiple new ways of communicating — whether it be video chats, instant messages, Wi-Fi calling, or beyond. To put it lightly, Wi-Fi has completely changed how we live, how we work, and how we interact in the 21st century.

Wi-Fi 7

To take advantage of Wi-Fi 7 routers, Wi-Fi 7 devices will be needed.

Wi-Fi Generations

GenerationStandardYear AdoptedMbit/sFrequency
Wi-Fi 0IEEE802.1119971-22.4
Wi-Fi 1IEEE802.11b19991-112.4
Wi-Fi 2IEEE802.11a19996-545
Wi-Fi 3IEEE802.11g20036-542.4
Wi-Fi 4IEEE802.11n200872-6002.4/5
Wi-Fi 5IEEE802.11ac2014433-69335
Wi-Fi 6IEEE802.11ax2019574-96082.4/5
Wi-Fi 6EIEEE802.11ax2020574-96086
Wi-Fi 7IEEE802.11be2024 (estimated)1376-461202.4/5/6

Most Common Uses For Wi-Fi

Now that we know more about how Wi-Fi works, let’s break down some of the most common uses for Wi-Fi today. From getting online to connecting cities to locating objects, these are a few instances where you’re likely to encounter Wi-Fi in your daily life.

Accessing The Internet

First and foremost, the most likely use for Wi-Fi is to simply connect to the internet. Whether you’re at home or at work (or, in some instances, even in your car), Wi-Fi is most commonly used as a way to connect our laptops, smartphones, televisions, video game consoles, and IoT devices to the web.

City-Wide Connectivity

As Wi-Fi became more and more widely accepted in the late 2000s and early 2010s, many cities nationwide began implementing free or reduced-cost Wi-Fi hotspots throughout their city’s infrastructure. From public parks to public transit, many cities have now established such programs.

Global Positioning

A third use of Wi-Fi today? Positioning. If you’ve lost a Wi-Fi-enabled device or cannot locate an individual with a Wi-Fi-enabled device on them, it’s possible to pinpoint their exact range using Wi-Fi connections. Likewise, Wi-Fi signals can also work as a motion detector in security systems.

Popular Alternatives To Wi-Fi

Though it undoubtedly dominates a vast majority of our most popular technology today, Wi-Fi is not the only way to wirelessly communicate and connect. As it turns out, there are some notable Wi-Fi alternatives worth mentioning in conclusion. These include:

Bluetooth

Whereas Wi-Fi is known for covering long ranges wirelessly, Bluetooth is a wireless alternative best known for covering short ranges. Still, much like Wi-Fi. this wireless technology is used to exchange data between two mobile devices.

Zigbee

Like Bluetooth, Zigbee is better suited for covering short-range wireless communication as opposed to Wi-Fi’s long ranges. Nevertheless, Zigbee remains a trusted source for low-power, low-data, close-proximity communication between devices in a network.

Cellular

Unlike Wi-Fi’s reliance on a router to wirelessly connect to the internet, cellular data connects your smartphone or cellular-enabled device to the web using a cell phone signal. This is facilitated via your nearest cell tower instead of an access point or router in the home.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a series of wireless networking protocols based on the IEEE 802.11 family of standards that enables devices to connect to the internet and communicate with one another wirelessly. Wi-Fi relies on radio waves, which it uses to send and receive data between two or more devices via a router or wireless access point. As the central hub of the wireless network, the router is an essential piece of hardware in any Wi-Fi network.

How do I improve my Wi-Fi signal strength?

If you’re experiencing a weak Wi-Fi signal, there are a number of ways you can improve its strength. This includes moving the router closer to where you’re located, moving it out of the way of obstacles that may potentially be interfering with the signal, or simply upgrading to a newer or more powerful router in line with the most recent Wi-Fi standards. You can also try cutting down on the number of devices connected to the network at one time.

Is Wi-Fi bad for your health?

While some have raised concerns about the possible adverse health effects of long-term radio wave exposure, there is no conclusive evidence that Wi-Fi or radio waves cause any sort of harm. The amount of radiation that people are exposed to via these waves is too insignificant to have any real negative impact.

What's the difference between a 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequency?

Wi-Fi routers typically rely on two different frequencies to transmit and receive data: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The lower frequency of the two, 2.4 GHz, has a longer range but a weaker strength and slower speed. The higher frequency, 5 GHz, has a shorter range but a stronger and faster Wi-Fi signal.

Does Wi-Fi still communicate without an internet connection?

Despite what you may think, Wi-Fi can still send and receive data between devices without an internet connection. Of course, an internet connection is still required to connect to remote servers or access the web. Nevertheless, a Wi-Fi network is still capable of certain tasks (such as streaming from a local server or sending files between devices) without an internet connection.

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