What is Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is a wireless networking technology that allows devices such as computers (laptops and desktops), mobile devices (smart phones and wearables), and other equipment (printers and video cameras) to connect to the Internet. It allows these devices and many more to exchange information with one another, creating a network.
Internet connectivity occurs through a wireless router. When you access Wi-Fi, you are connecting to a wireless router that allows your Wi-Fi compatible devices to interface with the Internet.
What is a Wireless Router?
Wireless routers are commonly found in homes. They are the hardware devices that Internet service providers use to connect you to their cable or xDSL Internet network.
A wireless router is sometimes referred to as a wireless local area network (WLAN) device. A wireless network is also called a Wi-Fi network, it combines the networking functions of a wireless access point and a router.
What is a Wireless Access Point?
A wireless access point (AP) allows wireless devices to connect to the wireless network. What a wireless access point does for your network is like what an amplifier does for your home stereo. An access point takes the bandwidth coming from a router and stretches it so that many devices can go on the network from farther distances away. But a wireless access point does more than simply extend Wi-Fi. It can also give useful data about the devices on the network, provide proactive security, and serve many other practical purposes.
What is a Mobile Hotspot?
A mobile hotspot is a common feature on smartphones with both tethered and untethered connections. When you turn on your phone’s mobile hotspot, you share your wireless network connection with other devices that can then access the Internet.
What is a Portable Wi-Fi Hotspot?
A portable Wi-Fi hotspot is a mobile hotspot obtained through a cell phone carrier. It is a small device that uses cellular towers that broadcast high-speed 3G, 4G or 5G signals. Multiple devices, like iPads and laptops, can then connect wirelessly to the device, which in turn seamlessly connects to the Internet wherever you travel. Like a mobile phone, the portable hotspot’s monthly cost is based on the data usage plan you select. A portable Wi-Fi hotspot is a more reliable way to access the Internet than searching for static public Wi-Fi hotspots.
Wireless standards are a set of services and protocols that dictate how your Wi-Fi network (and other data transmission networks) act.
There are many different types of Wi-Fi standards that your router, laptop, tablet, smartphone, and smart home devices use to connect to the internet. Wireless standards change every few years. Updates bring faster internet, better connections, more simultaneous connections, and so on, the most common set of wireless standards you will encounter is the IEEE 802.11 Wireless LAN (WLAN) & Mesh. The IEEE update the 802.11 Wi-Fi standard every few years. The current Wi-Fi standard is 802.11ac, while the next generation Wi-Fi standard, 802.11ax, is in the process of rolling out.
Here is the full breakdown on Wi-Fi standards.
The original, created in 1997, this now-outdated standard supported a blazing fast maximum connection speed of 2 megabits per second (Mbps). Devices using this standard have not been made for over a decade and will not work with today’s equipment.
Created in 1999, this version of Wi-Fi works on the 5GHz band. This was done with the hope of encountering less interference since many devices (like most wireless phones) also use the 2.4GHz band. 802.11a is fairly quick too, with maximum data rates topping out at 54Mbps. However, the 5GHz frequency has more difficulty with objects that are in the signal’s path, so the range is often poor.
Also created in 1999, this standard uses the more typical 2.4GHz band and can achieve a maximum speed of 11Mbps. 802.11b was the standard that kick-started Wi-Fi’s popularity.
Designed in 2003, the 802.11g standard upped the maximum data rate to 54Mbps while retaining usage of the reliable 2.4GHz band. This resulted in widespread adoption of the standard.
Introduced in 2009, this version had slow initial adoption. 802.11n operates on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, as well as supporting multi-channel usage. Each channel offers a maximum data rate of 150Mbps, which means the maximum data rate of the standard is 600Mbps.
The ac standard is what you will find most wireless devices using at the time of writing. Initially released in 2014, ac drastically increases the data throughput for Wi-Fi devices up to a maximum of 1,300 megabits per second. Furthermore, ac adds MU-MIMO support, additional Wi-Fi broadcast channels for the 5GHz band, and support for more antenna on a single router.
Next up for your router and your wireless devices is the ax standard. When ax completes its rollout, you will have access to theoretical network throughput of 10Gbps—around a 30-40 percent improvement over the ac standard. Furthermore, wireless ax will increase network capacity by adding broadcast subchannels, upgrading MU-MIMO, and allowing more simultaneous data streams.
Two devices using the same Wi-Fi standard can communicate without restriction. Issues arise, however, when you try to connect two devices that use different, potentially incompatible wireless standards.
In recent times, your router and devices using 802.11ac can communicate happily.
- Devices that use 802.11b, g, and n can all communicate with an ac router.
- 11b cannot communicate with a, and vice versa.
- 11g cannot communicate with b, and vice versa.
The original 1997 standard (now known as 802.11 legacy) is now obsolete, while the a and b standards are nearing the end of their lifespan.
What Is Wi-Fi 6?
Wi-Fi 6 is the Wi-Fi Alliance’s wireless standard naming system. The Wi-Fi Alliance argue that the 802.11 terminology is confusing for consumers. They are right; updating one or two letters doesn’t give users much information to work with.
The Wi-Fi Alliance naming system runs concurrently with the IEEE 802.11 convention. Here is how the naming standards correlate:
Wi-Fi 6: 802.11ax (coming in 2019)
Wi-Fi 5: 802.11ac (2014)
Wi-Fi 4: 802.11n (2009)
Wi-Fi 3: 802.11g (2003)
Wi-Fi 2: 802.11a (1999)
Wi-Fi 1: 802.11b (1999)
Legacy: 802.11 (1997)
Hardware Requirements for Any Wireless Network
As long as you have all the hardware, you can quickly set up any wireless network. Here is everything you need to know about the hardware you need to have in place before you use Windows to configure the wireless network.
There are two types of wireless networks: infrastructure and ad hoc. The infrastructure network is most likely the type of wireless setup you have in your home or office. It’s laid out similarly to a wired network, but without wires.
The basic wireless network consists of these components:
- Wireless Router: The heart of the wireless network is the wireless router. Like a wire-based network, the hub is a central location that all computers connect to, providing the computers with network access.
The wireless hubs now available also serve as routers. Well, officially, wireless hubs are gateways, not routers, but they’re called routers. They’re also called access points, so get used to that term as well.
Despite the nomenclature confusion, all you need to know is that the hub/router/access point is a smart little beast that helps manage wireless connections and also helps connect your wireless network to the Internet.
- Wire-based connections: Almost every wireless router I’ve seen has one or more standard, wire-based Ethernet port. One port is used to connect the router to a broadband modem. Other Ethernet ports might be also available, allowing you to connect standard wire-based networking to the wireless hub.
- Wireless Net`work Interface Card (NIC):Your computer needs a wireless network information card, or NIC, to talk with the wireless router. A laptop comes standard with a wireless NIC, but for a desktop PC you have to get a wireless NIC as an option. It’s installed internally as an expansion card, or you can use one of the various plug-in USB wireless NICs.
That’s pretty much it for the infrastructure type of wireless network.
The ad hoc type of wireless network is basically a group of wireless computers connected with each other. An ad hoc network has no central hub or router. Instead, all its computers can directly access the other computers’ files and shared resources. They may or may not have Internet access, but that’s not the point of the ad hoc network.