How WiFi Works

By: Marshall Brain & Talon Homer
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There was a time when you’d only find WiFI at certain airports, coffee shops, or hotels. Nowadays, wireless networks, also called WiFi or 802.11 networking, is in just about every home and business. Many cities are also using the technology to provide free or low-cost internet access to residents.

WiFi has a lot of advantages. Wireless networks are easy to set up and inexpensive. They’re also unobtrusive — unless you’re on the lookout for a place to watch streaming movies on your tablet, you may even notice when you’re in a hot spot. In this article, we’ll look at the technology that allows information to travel over the air. We’ll also review what it takes to create a wireless network in your home.

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First, let’s go over a few WiFi basics.

A wireless network uses radio waves, just like cell phones, televisions and radios do. In fact, communication across a wireless network is a lot like two-way radio communication. Here’s what happens:

The process also works in reverse, with the router receiving information from the internet, translating it into a radio signal and sending it to the computer’s wireless adapter.

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The radios used for WiFi communication are very similar to the radios used for walkie-talkies, cell phones and other devices. They can transmit and receive radio waves, and they can convert 1s and 0s into radio waves and convert the radio waves into 1s and 0s. But WiFi radios have a few notable differences from other radios:

WiFi uses 802.11 networking standards, which come in several flavors and have evolved over the decades:

Other 802.11 standards focus on specific applications of wireless networks, like wide area networks (WANs) inside vehicles or technology that lets you move from one wireless network to another seamlessly.

WiFi radios can transmit on any frequency band. Or they can “frequency hop” rapidly between the different bands. Frequency hopping helps reduce interference and lets multiple devices use the same wireless connection simultaneously.

As long as they all have wireless adapters, several devices can use one router to connect to the internet. This connection is convenient, virtually invisible and fairly reliable; however, if the router fails or if too many people try to use high-bandwidth applications at the same time, users can experience interference or lose their connections, although newer, faster standards like 802.11ax will help with that.

Next, we’ll look at how to connect to the internet from a WiFi hot spot.

You may be wondering why people refer to WiFi as 802.11 networking. The 802.11 designation comes from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The IEEE sets standards for a range of technological protocols, and it uses a numbering system to classify these standards.

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A WiFi hot spot is simply an area with an accessible wireless network. The term is most often used to refer to wireless networks in public areas like airports and coffee shops. Some are free and some require fees for use, but in either case they can be handy when you are on the go. You can even create your own mobile hot spot using a cell phone or an external device that can connect to a cellular network. And you can always set up a WiFi network at home.

If you want to take advantage of public WiFi hot spots or your own home-based network, the first thing you’ll need to do is make sure your computer has the right gear. Most new laptops and many new desktop computers come with built-in wireless transmitters, and just about all mobile devices are WiFi enabled. If your computer isn’t already equipped, you can buy a wireless adapter that plugs into the PC card slot or USB port. Desktop computers can use USB adapters, or you can buy an adapter that plugs into the PCI slot inside the computer’s case. Many of these adapters can use more than one 802.11 standard.

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Once you’ve installed a wireless adapter and the drivers that allow it to operate, your computer should be able to automatically discover existing networks. This means that when you turn your computer on in a WiFi hot spot, the computer will inform you that the network exists and ask whether you want to connect to it. If you have an older computer, you may need to use a software program to detect and connect to a wireless network.

Being able to connect to the internet in public hot spots is extremely convenient. Wireless home networks are convenient as well. They allow you to easily connect multiple computers and to move them from place to place without disconnecting and reconnecting wires. In the next section, we’ll look at how to create a wireless network in your home.

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If you already have several computers networked in your home, you can create a wireless network with a wireless access point. If you have several computers that are networked, or if you want to replace your ethernet network, you’ll need a wireless router. This is a single unit that contains:

A wireless router allows you to use wireless signals or ethernet cables to connect your computers and mobile devices to one another, to a printer and to the internet. Most routers provide coverage for about 100 feet (30.5 meters) in all directions, although walls and doors can block the signal. If your home is very large, you can buy inexpensive range extenders or repeaters to increase your router’s range.

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As with wireless adapters, many routers can use more than one 802.11 standard. Normally, 802.11n routers are slightly less expensive than others, but because the standard is older, they’re also slower than 802.11ac or 802.11ax.

Once you plug in your router, it should start working at its default settings. Most routers let you use a web interface to change your settings. You can select:

is an important part of a home wireless network, as well as public WiFi hot spots. If you set your router to create an open hot spot, anyone who has a wireless card will be able to use your signal. Most people would rather keep strangers out of their network, though. Doing so requires you to take a few precautions.

It’s also important to make sure your security precautions are current. The Wired Equivalency Privacy (WEP) security measure was once the standard for WAN security. The idea behind WEP was to create a wireless security platform that would make any wireless network as secure as a traditional wired network. But hackers discovered vulnerabilities in the WEP approach, and today it’s easy to find applications and programs that can compromise a WAN running WEP security. It was succeeded by the first version of WiFi Protected Access (WPA), which uses Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) encryption and is a step up from WEP but is also no longer considered secure.

To keep your network private, you can use one or more of the following methods:

You also can change other router settings to improve security. For instance, you can set it to block WAN requests to keep the router from responding to IP requests from remote users, set a limit to the number of devices that can connect to your router and even disable remote administration so that only computers plugged directly into your router can change your network settings. You should also change the Service Set Identifier (SSID), which is your network name, to something other than the default so that hackers can’t immediately tell what router you are using. And selecting a strong password never hurts.

Wireless networks are easy and inexpensive to set up, and most routers’ web interfaces are virtually self-explanatory. For more information on setting up and using a wireless network, check out the links that follow.

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Originally Published: Apr 30, 2001

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How WiFi Works

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