What is Wi-Fi and why is it so important? (2023)

Opinion

The ubiquitous wireless technology Wi-Fi has become indispensable for home networking, public internet connectivity, supporting the internet of things and much, much more.

By Josh Fruhlinger

Contributing writer, Network World |

What is Wi-Fi and why is it so important? (2)
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The term Wi-Fi was created more than two decades ago as a way to make local wireless networking easy to understand for the general public. Today, Wi-Fi technology is ubiquitous, making home and office connectivity without wires available for all, and contributing to an explosion of smart devices.

What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a blanket term for multiple technologies that use the IEEE 802.11 communications standards to create local area networks orLANs.Wi-Fi-enabled products use radio waves to transmit data and communicate with one another. Initially the technology used the 2.4 GHz frequency, but it has since expanded to 5 GHz, 60 GHz,and 6 GHzfrequency bands.

Wi-Fi is not the only wireless LAN technology out there, but it's by far the most popular. As the name implies, a LAN network is relatively small, encompassing a home, store, or (at the larger end) an office building or campus. Wi-Fi thus stands between personal area network technologies like Bluetooth, which connect devices to nearby peripherals, and wireless wide area networks like the city-blanketing 5G networks deployed by the major cellular carriers.

How does Wi-Fi work?

Wi-Fi, at a basic level, works on the same principles that make your radio or over-the-air TV possible. Wi-Fi devices send radio waves to one another—but instead of broadcasting analog audio or video, these waves digitally encode network packets that comply with the Internet Protocol, just like the ones sent over wired Ethernet connections.

Exactly how this information is encoded and decoded by your various devices is extremely complex, and has been refined over the past two decades with techniques likebeamformingto allow networks to transmit data farther and more quickly, with less power.

The basic components of a Wi-Fi network include:

  • Arouter, which does thework of managing the trafficamong the devices on the network.
  • Awireless access pointthat provides the radio connection between the router and the local wireless devices.
  • Amodemthat connects the local network to the wider internet. While not strictly necessary for making the Wi-Fi network work, without it the devices on the network can only talk to each other and not the wider world.

Typically, home users will have all three of these components combined in a single box that you get from your Internet Service Provider (ISP). If you want to cover a larger physical space than the signal from one access point can reach, you might also want to deploywireless extenders,which "echo" the network signal to help reach more distant parts of your home or office. More advanced deployments, particularly in professional settings, might roll out amesh network, in which multiple extenders are coordinated to provide better coverage.

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It is important to keep in mind that just connecting to a Wi-Fi network doesn't get you to the internet without a modem that in turn is connected to an ISP. In other words, Wi-Fi alone isn't enough to get you online. Those modems can connect to the internet in a variety of ways; the most common today are cable or fiber.

Some modems are themselves wireless, although they use technologies other than Wi-Fi to make that internet connection. Some cellular providers will sell gadgets calledwireless hotspots that serve as both a wireless modem and a Wi-Fi router and access point, and most modern cell phones can also serve this purpose, although cellular carriers often limit the amount of data you can use in this way.

No matter how you connect, the router serves the key role in mediating between all the devices on your local network and internet. While you may have many gadgets, from the perspective of the outside world, they all share a single public-facingIP address. It's up the router to send any inbound network traffic to the correct device on the internal network.

What is 802.11 and how is it related to Wi-Fi?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers maintains a number of industry standards. 802 is the number designating the family of standards governing how LANs work, and 802.11 is a subfamily dedicated to wireless LANs. The 802.11 standards describe in detail how devices should communicate wirelessly, and any device that adheres to these standards can communicate with others that do the same.

There have been a host of 802.11 standards, each different but generally backwards compatible, since the first version rolled out in the late 1990s. Oddly, 802.11b was developed before 802.11a, and then it evolved into 802.11g, 802.11n, and other letters.

Obviously, this sort ofalphabet soupwasn't very consumer friendly. That's where the overarching term Wi-Fi comes in.

What does "Wi-Fi" stand for?

As 802.11-compatible devices started entering the marketplace, major device manufacturers and networking companies such as 3Com, Lucent, and Nokia formed the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance (WECA) to ensure that they all could interoperate. In 2000, the group decided that it would be best to come up with a unifying brand signifying compatibility, rather than forcing users to memorize which letters they were using on a particular device to see if it would connect.

There has been some controversy over the years on the issue of whether Wi-Fi is short for wireless fidelity. Phil Belanger, a founding member of the Wi-Fi Alliance who presided over the selection process says the group hired a company called Interbrand to develop the name. They landed on Wi-Fi,which was meant to evoke a hi-fi stereo system, but did not otherwise have an inherent meaning.

Belanger says some of the more literal-minded members of WECA (which soon rebranded itself as theWi-Fi Alliance) insisted on using the tagline "The Standard for Wireless Fidelity" for a while, but the term "Wi-Fi" came first and "wireless fidelity" was a back-formation. In truth, Wi-Fi doesn't stand for anything.

At any rate, in April 2000, the group announced the first set of Wi-Fi Certified products, starting with IEEE 802.11b. As the technology grew and became more ubiquitous on millions of different devices, the term Wi-Fi became more about the general wireless LAN technology and less about the interoperability certification.

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Now more than 20 years later, there are more than 15 billion Wi-Fi products in use around the world, according to the alliance. In fact, the Wi-Fi brand has become so strongly associated with the 802.11 standards that the IEEE has begun using it in their own versioning of the underlying standards. So, for example, technology compliant with 802.11ax is called Wi-Fi 6.

How to secure Wi-Fi connections

As Wi-Fi grew in popularity, so did the ability for hackers and other bad actors to take advantage. Initially, most Wi-Fi networks were open, with data traveling over the air unsecured. This posed a problem for companies concerned that an employee connecting from a public coffee shop could be leaking data to anyone else in the room who had a Wi-Fi receiver.

The Wi-Fi Alliance addressed by adding different security protocols to the standard under the Wi-Fi Protected Access banner, including thelatest, WPA3. Users connecting to secured access points through properly configured WPA and a VPN connection are now generally secure from some of the technology’s earlier open-network issues.

What devices can use Wi-Fi?

Another reason for the technology’s success has been the exponential growth of devices where Wi-Fi can be installed including home appliances, TVs, video game consoles, and smart watches, to name a few. The growth of the internet of things (IoT) can be traced to the low cost, powerful performance, and reliability of Wi-Fi networks.

Wi-Fi 7 and beyond: Why Wi-Fi still matters

Now more than 20 years after its inception, Wi-Fi continues to grow. In addition to supporting short-distance connectivity (such as 60 GHz offerings for technologies such as virtual reality), the Wi-Fi Alliance is working onWi-Fi 7, expected to arrive sometime in 2024. Thanks to larger channels, increased quadratic amplitude modulation, and multi-access point operation, Wi-Fi 7 promises a truly radical increase in data speed and throughput.

Its maximum theoretical speed is a mind-boggling 46 Gbps, but even the much-reduced estimate for real-world performance, at 6 Gbps, is faster than Gigabit ethernet. Wi-Fi has already replaced wired networking for most everyday purposes, and at those speeds it may be able to displace Ethernet completely, even for high-traffic purposes like connection to cloud services. With thousands of products capable of supporting Wi-Fi and a bright and faster future not far off, the technology is here to stay.

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Josh Fruhlinger is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles.

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FAQs

What is Wi-Fi and why is it important? ›

Wi-Fi is a wireless technology used to connect computers, tablets, smartphones and other devices to the internet. Wi-Fi is the radio signal sent from a wireless router to a nearby device, which translates the signal into data you can see and use.

How Wi-Fi is important? ›

Wireless networks allow smartphone users to access information in real-time so that they can roam anywhere they want without being removed from the network. This improves their mobility over the old fashioned traditional networking system.

What is Wi-Fi short answer? ›

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 interface with the Internet.

What is the full meaning of Wi-Fi? ›

abbreviation for wireless fidelity: a system used for connecting computers and other electronic equipment to the internet without using wires: Built-in wi-fi now comes as a standard feature.

How has Wi-Fi improved our lives? ›

Wireless connection means live news can become available in every corner of the world at the same time. The world has become a global village today with quick and easy access to data, making communication faster than ever before!

Why is Wi-Fi important in communication? ›

Wi-Fi is used for different purposes such as data transmission and wireless communication, With using a Wi-Fi connection whenever possible will most often result in faster, more reliable internet access, and It is cheap.

What will happen if there is no Wi-Fi? ›

“In a lot of cases, it could shut down a large percentage of our infrastructure. We would be completely blacked out. Wouldn't be able to leverage any technology, and it would be a complete cataclysmic downfall of a lot of our infrastructure.”

What is the difference between Wi-Fi and the Internet? ›

Wi-Fi is more sort of a facility that gives wireless Internet access to smartphones, computers, or other devices within a selected range. On the other hand the Internet is a language through which computers communicate (send and receive their information) via the Internet Protocol.

Is Wi-Fi the same as the Internet? ›

Comparison between WiFi and Internet

WiFi is a wireless network to connect nearby devices with each other and share the Internet via hotspots. Internet is a global network of networks where computers communicate with each other via Internet Protocol. WiFi uses radio frequency waves to transmit data.

How does Wi-Fi work for dummies? ›

Wi-Fi uses radio waves to transmit data. A wireless adapter on a computer translates data into a radio signal and transmits it via an antenna. The radio waves are picked up and decoded into data by a wireless router connected to the internet. Routers often have built in modems.

Can I get internet without Wi-Fi? ›

So is there such a thing as non-WiFi internet? Definitely. In fact, all of the information on the internet passes through wires at some point. These can be fiber optic cables that send data to and from the physical servers (basically a fancy computer without a screen) that host most of the information on the internet.

Can you still use Wi-Fi on a phone without service? ›

With Wi-Fi Calling, you can make or receive a phone call if you have a Wi-Fi connection in an area with little or no cellular coverage. Learn how to make a voice call using Wi-Fi Calling.

Can WIFI work without a router? ›

You do not need to have a router to use Wi-Fi as long as you're not trying to share an Internet connection. The common consumer Wi-Fi router is actually a combination device that includes a network switch, a network router and a Wi-Fi access point.

Will Smart TV work without internet connection? ›

Yes, your smart TV will work normally without an internet connection. You'll be able to use a cable box or an antenna to watch TV channels, connect Blu-ray/DVD players, connect speakers, and do everything else that a regular TV does. However, you will be unable to use any of the included video streaming apps.

Is A modem the same as a router? ›

While some will use the two words interchangeably, they are not the same thing. A modem brings internet service into the home, and the router delivers the internet to the devices in your home via WiFi or an Ethernet cable.

What is the difference between a modem and a router? ›

Have you ever asked, "do I need a modem and router?" To put it simply, the modem connects your home to the Internet, while a router creates the network inside your house.

Why do I need WiFi on my phone? ›

WiFi allows you to connect multiple devices to one network at the same time. You should use WiFi when: The WiFi network is secure. You want faster internet connection.

Can I just get WiFi without cable? ›

Now, it's possible in many places to get a high-speed internet connection without a landline or cable television service. Depending on where you live, the best options for how to get Wi-Fi without cable or a phone line include satellite internet, fiber internet, 4G or 5G internet, fixed wireless or a mobile hotspot.

Which is better WiFi or internet? ›

Ethernet gives you better speed, lower latency, and a more reliable connection. Wi-Fi is more convenient for mobile devices, but is prone to interference. Deciding which one is better depends on what you want to do; so let's help you decide with some key comparisons.

Is there a difference between internet and Wi-Fi? ›

Comparison between WiFi and Internet

WiFi is a wireless network to connect nearby devices with each other and share the Internet via hotspots. Internet is a global network of networks where computers communicate with each other via Internet Protocol.

Does Wi-Fi work without internet? ›

Devices can, however, communicate with each other over WiFi without the internet.

What's the difference between wireless internet and Wi-Fi? ›

The bottom line is this: WiFi is the wireless network you use in your house, but it can be created from any type of internet connection. Wireless home internet is a specific type of internet connection that uses cell towers. (And, no, you cannot have WiFi without internet.)

Do you need internet or Wi-Fi? ›

The internet itself is the worldwide network of servers, emails, websites, apps, social media, streaming services, video chat platforms, and other software tools people use to communicate with each other. So while you can use WiFi to connect to the internet, you don't have to.

Should I use WiFi on my phone? ›

You should use WiFi when: The WiFi network is secure. You want faster internet connection. Your phone has a strong WiFi signal.

What is better than WiFi? ›

An Ethernet connection is generally faster than a WiFi connection and provides greater reliability and security.

What happens when you turn off WiFi on phone? ›

Turning off, or disabling, your WiFi at night really won't affect anything, as you are usually sleeping. Your phone will automatically connect to your cell network, and so you'll still get all the notifications you require (although I'd encourage you to not sleep next to your cell phone.)

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