At one point or another we’ve all said phrases like, “what’s the Wi-Fi password?” or, “the Wi-Fi is slow.” For something we use daily across our personal and professional lives, most people say these words as if it’s second nature.
Have you ever stopped to wonder what Wi-Fi actually stands for? The answer is probably not, and that’s totally okay. Even with billions of users daily, it’s not something we really stop to consider.
So, what does Wi-Fi actually stand for and what does it mean?
Let’s take a look at this hugely popular term and see if we can get to the bottom of what it really stands for. Hint: it’s not “wireless fidelity.”
Definition of Wi-Fi
Before you know what Wi-Fi stands for, it’s important to know what Wi-Fi actually is. In the case of how we best know it, Wi-Fi is a wireless networking technology that uses radio frequency signals to connect to the internet.
Everything from your phone, computer, and printer can use this technology and communicate with one another. The radio signal is sent from a router and translated into data that can be seen and used by devices connecting to the signal.
So long as a router is connected to an internet modem (or a combination modem/router), you can receive a signal and broadcast it to any Wi-Fi-enabled device. As long as you stay within a set coverage area, you are connected to a Wi-Fi connection and thus connected to the internet.
History of Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi, as we know it today, first appeared in 1997 with its first version, 802.11 protocol. At the time, Wi-Fi was able to provide customers, mostly businesses at the time, with speeds up to 2 Mbps.
In 1999, the Wi-Fi protocol was updated to 802.11b and speeds were able to hit up to 11 Mbps. 1999 also saw the year that the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit organization, was formed, which is now responsible for the Wi-Fi trademark and the three-line symbol you see across billions of devices today.
In order to use the Wi-FI certified logo and trademark after 1999, devices and equipment must pass a Wi-Fi Alliance-approved test that determines appropriate security protocols and quality of service.
The biggest commercial breakthrough for consumer Wi-Fi also came in 1999 when Apple added Wi-Fi to their iBook laptop series. This marked the first time a consumer product offered Wi-Fi connectivity.
How is Wi-Fi Used?
Whereas Ethernet uses a wired connection, Wi-Fi makes use of radio waves at the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands. These are the two most common frequencies you will find on both consumer and commercial products.
Within each of these bands, there are additional frequency ranges that can add several different channels so that one band doesn’t become too crowded and cause a slowdown in speeds.
Typically, Wi-Fi networks can reach about 300 feet in an open-air environment. That distance drops when you factor in building architecture like walls, so cutting that distance down to less than 100 feet is often more realistic.
Another big factor is the strength of any Wi-Fi antenna, which is why many routers promote multiple antennas as a major selling point. That, combined with the notion that a higher frequency like 5GHz has less range than 2.4GHz, also impacts the connection.
2.4Ghz vs. 5Ghz
When it comes to both of the common frequencies available for Wi-Fi, 2.4GHz was the first to be released to the public and sees more use than 5GHz.
For the most part, your laptops, cell phones, and tablets will all connect to the 2.4GHz signal first. However, because it is the “busier” of the two frequencies, that also means it’s more difficult to hold a solid connection without a drop in data rates.
The 5GHz band has the opposite problem as it can maintain high data rates longer but cannot travel through objects like walls or doors as well as 2.4GHz can.
If you have fewer devices and live in a smaller home or apartment, 5GHz is likely the better of the two options. However, if you live in a larger space that has more physical barriers like walls or doors that can get in the way of the signal, 2.4GHz is the better option.
Most routers available at retail will allow you to manually select one of these two frequencies so you can choose the strongest frequency for your situation.
Today, with more than two decades of Wi-Fi availability to the world, there have been a few different versions, each improving on the Wi-Fi signal that came before it. Wi-Fi began with 802.11 but we have seen 802.11a, 802.11g, and 802.11g between 1999 and 2012, before moving into the most common version today, 802.11ac, which was released in 2012.
Between 1999 and 2012, Wi-Fi speed grew from the original 2Mbps all the way up to 450Mbps with 802.11g.
Modern devices, like Smart TVs, smartphones, and tablets, all take advantage of 802.11ac (up to 3Gbps speed), which is among the strongest Wi-Fi connection available along with 802.11ax (better known as Wi-Fi 6).
The different types of versions are built to help alleviate Wi-Fi network congestion and improve data speed. In a best-case scenario, seeing speeds of up to 9.6 Gbps is not entirely unrealistic with 802.11ax, though it’s unlikely you’ll see that at home or in a Starbucks for some time.
So, What Does Wi-Fi Actually Stand For?
For years there has been a belief that Wi-Fi stands for one thing or another. “Wireless fidelity” has often been the best guess, but it’s not correct.
The surprising answer is that Wi-Fi really stands for…wait for it…nothing at all!
When Wi-Fi was first developed, the technology had a much different name with “IEEE 802.11.” The problem is that it’s a very technical term and the Wi-Fi Alliance didn’t believe it would sell too well with consumers.
So, in 1999, a brand consulting firm known as Interbrand was hired by the Wi-Fi Alliance to come up with a name that would better position the technology. Out of the ten possible names that Interbrand proposed to the alliance, Wi-Fi was chosen as the winner.
More importantly, the Wi-Fi alliance only recognizes “Wi-Fi” as the proper spelling. “WiFi,” “Wifi,” and “wifi” are all not approved by the Wi-Fi Alliance, so someone please tell Google Docs and Microsoft Word to stop autocorrecting.
How is Wi-Fi Changing in A Wi-Fi 6 World?
The move to Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) isn’t just about a new name but more of a major overhaul of Wi-Fi as a standard.
Like 5G, Wi-Fi 6 promises lower latency, faster speeds, better battery life, and just overall stronger connections.
With a promised peak data rate of 9.6 Gbps, Wi-Fi 6 has plenty of promise for the future. With speeds comparable to the upper ranges of 5G, downloading a movie or streaming your favorite show will hardly differ in the overall experience.
Not only will Wi-Fi 6 operate faster, but the promise of better battery life because of improved efficiencies in the technology, offers a large reason to upgrade. MU-MIMO technology available on many at-home Wi-Fi 6 antennas promises to deliver better performance to every device and corner of a house using one single antenna.
If Wi-Fi 6 can deliver on this promise, it would differ from 802.11ac, which often requires a “mesh networking” setup or multiple routers in the same home to deliver an equally strong signal.
If Wi-Fi 6 has any downside, it’s that the technology we already use with our smartphones and tablets needs to catch up. There are billions of devices in consumers’ hands today that are not Wi-Fi 6 compatible, so it’s going to take time—think years—before we see Wi-Fi 6 advantages on a global scale.