What Is Wi-Fi, and How Does It Work?

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Wi-Fi is a networking technology primarily used to connect to the internet. It uses radio waves to transmit data wirelessly and is supported by various modern electronic devices, including computers and smartphones. Wi-Fi has become one of the most popular technologies. Most of us use it to access the internet. But what does connecting to Wi-Fi mean, what does Wi-Fi stand for, and how does it work?


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Defining Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is a wireless networking technology used by computers, smartphones, and other devices to connect to the internet or other devices. It’s based on a set of wireless communication standards developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). These standards are also known as IEEE 802.11.

Originally introduced in the late-1990s, Wi-Fi has come a long way. Like any other technology, it has evolved and gotten better. While the first Wi-Fi generation—802.11-1997—offered a maximum link rate of 1-2Mbps, the newest generation—Wi-Fi 6—has a maximum link rate of 574-9608Mbps. The link rate is the top data transfer speed across a wireless link between a router and a device. Wi-Fi 7 or 802.11be, which is expected to be adopted as the next Wi-Fi generation in 2024, is even faster at 1376-46120Mbps.

What Are the Different Wi-Fi Generations?

As we mentioned earlier, Wi-Fi has grown a lot since the debut of its first generation in 1997. As of January 2023, seven Wi-Fi generations have been formally unveiled, including IEEE 802.11-1997. Each Wi-Fi generation has brought new capabilities and has typically been faster than its predecessor.

Although the first three generations of Wi-Fi—802.11, 802.11b, 802.11a—saw some uptake among corporations and early adopters, the introduction of 802.11g in 2003 truly pushed Wi-Fi into the mainstream. It was superseded by 802.11n or Wi-Fi 4 in 2008, which significantly improved the Wi-Fi link rate by introducing MIMO and a channel bandwidth of 40MHz.

However, as of 2023, Wi-Fi 4 and older generations have mostly become a thing of the past. So instead, you’ll primarily find Wi-Fi 5 or a newer version, like Wi-Fi 6 or 6E, in modern devices.

How Does Wi-Fi Work?

Wi-Fi uses radio waves to send information to and from devices. A wireless router or access point converts data received from a wired connection to radio waves and transmits it. These radio waves are intercepted by a receiver, such as your smartphone, and converted back to data you can read, listen to, or watch. It’s a continuous process in which both the access point and the receiver constantly exchange data as required. So essentially, this is how you receive the webpage you’re looking at now, the music you’re streaming, or the YouTube videos you watch on your phone.

Wi-Fi has traditionally used the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands of the radio wave frequencies, but the Wi-Fi 6E version has also introduced the use of the 6GHz band. The 6GHz band has more bandwidth than the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, so there is less congestion, resulting in faster connection speeds and better Wi-Fi performance.

How Is Wi-Fi Different From Ethernet?

Wi-Fi and Ethernet are two mediums for getting Internet access to your device or forming a local area network. Unlike Wi-Fi, which is wireless and uses radio waves to transmit information, Ethernet is wired and uses physical cables for data transmission. There are advantages and disadvantages to both mediums.

While Wi-Fi is convenient and great for mobility, Ethernet is more reliable, consistent, and secure. Ethernet is also better at reducing latency. The speed of the connection in both mediums depends on the hardware you are using, such as your wireless router, Wi-Fi adapter in your device, Ethernet cable, network switch, etc.

What Does Wi-Fi Stand For?

Wi-Fi doesn’t stand for anything. It’s not an abbreviation but a marketing name. Interbrand, a leading brand consultancy, invented it for the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (now called Wi-Fi Alliance), an industry group that handles the advocacy and branding for Wi-Fi. It’s sometimes erroneously spelled out as “wireless fidelity,” but that’s inaccurate.

According to Phil Belanger, a founding member of the Wi-Fi Alliance, some of his colleagues weren’t too sure about having a marketing name that didn’t mean anything. So the group added a tagline to Wi-Fi: The Standard for Wireless Fidelity, which led to the confusion around wireless fidelity being the full form of Wi-Fi. But the tagline didn’t take off and only diluted the brand. So once Wi-Fi became popular, Wi-Fi Alliance dropped it.

What Do You Need to Access Wi-Fi?

If you want to use Wi-Fi at home, you’ll primarily need a wireless router and a Wi-Fi-capable device. There is an excellent chance that the router provided by your internet service price (ISP) already has Wi-Fi support, and you just need to enable it. If not, you can always pick one from our recommendations for the best Wi-Fi routers and connect it to your ISP’s router with an Ethernet cable. Even the most budget-friendly routers will do the job.

Depending on the size of your home, your ISP’s wireless router may or may not be able to send Wi-Fi to every corner. So if you face dead spots or low signal strength, the best mesh routers or Wi-Fi range extenders can help.

In terms of devices, unless you are still rocking a feature phone, your phone will have Wi-Fi support, and you can simply connect to your newly set up Wi-Fi network. Similarly, laptops and tablets also come with Wi-Fi support. But if you own an older desktop, you’ll have to confirm whether it can work with Wi-Fi. If it lacks Wi-Fi, you can get a Wi-Fi adapter.

But if you want to connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot to access the internet, such as Starbucks Wi-Fi, all you need is a Wi-Fi-capable mobile device, which includes almost every laptop, tablet, and smartphone.

Wi-Fi has arguably changed the way we access the internet on our devices. This has been possible because of its convenience, mobility, simplicity, and expandability. You don’t need to worry about the number of available Ethernet ports or deal with different cables. It’s also relatively easy to set up and takes seconds to connect.

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