WiFi – What Is It, How Does It Work?

It’s not that long ago when wireless communications across the network was akin to witchcraft. At the time we had coaxial cables networking everything, then Ethernet, and then WiFi began to emerge, and it was utterly brilliant.

We take Wi-Fi and wireless connectivity for granted these days. The phone that most of us carry around, with its ability to connect to a network, or Bluetooth pair to another device, is simply an amazing piece of technology. As we said in the intro, it wasn’t all that long ago when connecting to a network over a wireless setup was simply out of the question. While it has existed since the early seventies, as UHF wireless packet networking, it wasn’t worth the exorbitant cost of installation, setup and maintenance. But Wi-Fi, which stands for Wireless Fidelity, has come a long in a short time.

In essence, as you already suspect, Wi-Fi is wireless connectivity; the ability to connect to a network and therefore the Internet wirelessly. It’s a set of protocols and data packet exchanges that enable a PC, laptop, tablet and so on, to connect directly to a router or other Access Point using a number of available radio frequencies.

These frequencies range from 900MHz, through to the 3.6GHz, 4.9GHz, 5GHz, 5.9GHz, and 60GHz bands, and are called channels. They use a set of protocols called IEEE 802.11, and split into standards such as a, b, g, n, ac and ax. These standards basically denote the age of the wireless device, where 802.11 was the first standard and created in 1997, 802.11a came next in 1999, then 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac and finally 802.11ax; you can also get 802.11p and 802.11ad/ay, but these are reserved for higher rate communications.

Each of these standards connect to a wireless access point, such as your router at different speeds. 2.4GHz is the most common connection channel and can offer up a theoretical speed of 54Mb/s. Dual-band Wi-Fi devices are able to connect on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz channels and have a maximum throughput of up to 7Gb/s (although in theory, it’s said it can hit 12Gb/s).

With Wi-Fi being constantly updated there are frequent increases in the connection speed between wireless devices. Generally, an accepted improvement from one wireless standard to the next often means a performance increase of around 30 to 40% from the previous generation standard. There are other factors at work too, such as MU-MIMO (Multi-User, Multiple Input, Multiple Output), which increases the number of antennas in a router for transmitting and receiving data, thus improving the capacity for wireless connections.

Working WiFi

A Wi-Fi router works by converting the network communications signals into radio waves, then transmitting them around itself creating its own small Local Area Network; which incidentally is why it’s called WLAN, Wireless Local Area Network.

Devices that can pick up and receive the radio signal, such as a tablet or phone, are able to connect to the WLAN and decode the radio waves back into a readable form of network communications. The power of the router’s Wi-Fi isn’t very strong, and doesn’t have a lot of range, but it depends on the frequency being used as to how far you’re able to communicate with a router. For example, a 2.4GHz band can reach up to around 150 feet, and 5GHz can reach even further. However, as routers are placed inside our homes there’s a lot of interference for the signal to get through. Walls, doors and even some furniture (no, Christmas lights don’t affect your Wi-Fi) will rapidly degrade the signal, so while the theoretical distances sound good at several hundred feet, in reality you’ll be lucky to get a good signal within thirty to forty feet of your router.

On top of that, the signal will become weaker the longer the distance, and it’ll start to drop in power very quickly too. Due to this, your router needs to have several antennae in order to transmit and receive the signal, and they need to powerful enough to push that signal as far as possible before it naturally starts to drop.

Interestingly, one of the key features of keeping the signal as clean as possible was created as a by-product of a failed experiment to detect exploding mini black holes the size of an atom particle, and was invented by an Australian radio astronomer called Dr. John O’Sullivan together with his colleagues Terence Percival, Graham Daniels, Diet Ostry and John Deane.

The Future for Wi-Fi

In 1929, Nikola Tesla theorised the ‘World Wireless System’, which he said. “We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do his will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone. A man will be able to carry one in his vest pocket.”

Tesla may have had his own personal demons to battle, but you have to admit the man was pretty much on the ball. But what does the future hold for Wi-Fi?

It’s long thought that the future of Wi-Fi will be tighter frequencies, but with extraordinarily boosted power. This extra power will be able to cut through most of the obstacles that face current Wi-Fi frequencies, and through the use of more secure roaming hotspots, we’ll be able to be permanently connected to a Wi-Fi network as we move around.

There are even concepts being worked by communications companies to eventually remove wired telephony, and instead our home routers will communicate directly via Wi-Fi to the ISP.

Of course, all that is some years off. Until then, we’ll enjoy the ever increasing speeds of Wi-Fi and it’s ease of use in our homes.

Russ Ware

Russ has been testing, reviewing and writing guides for tech since the heady days of Windows 95 and the Sega Saturn. A self-confessed (and proud) geek about all things tech, if it has LED's, a screen, beeps or has source code, Russ will want to master it (and very likely take it apart to see how it works...)

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