What is Wi-Fi and How Does It Work?

You may have heard the term "Wi-Fi" when you hear people talking about connecting to the Internet, usually when they're away from home and on a mobile device.  They may be looking for "hotspots".  What does that all mean, though?  What is the technology known as "Wi-Fi", and how does it work to get you on the Internet?  Answering those questions will be the focus of this lesson.

What exactly is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a technology that allows computers to connect to each other, or other networks of computers (such as the Internet), without using wires.  Instead, Wi-Fi uses short-range radio waves.  The name "Wi-Fi" is a play on the short-form for "high-fidelity" or "hi-fi"; the technology's full name is I.E.E.E. 802.11.

Wi-Fi has become an industry-standard technology across all sorts of electronic devices.  This is useful because it allows them to all talk to each other on the same network using the same language.  For example, even some modern video game consoles can transmit information over the Internet via Wi-Fi!

How does Wi-Fi work?

Wi-Fi works by having a computer translate data into a radio signal via a wireless adapter and transmit it.  Then a wireless router receives the signal and then transmits the data to the Internet via a wire.  The process can also work in reverse, with the router sending data from the Internet to a computer via radio.

In a way, Wi-Fi works much the same way that modern cell phones and other two-way radios work.  When you talk into a cell phone, your voice is translated into a form of data, like when you're sending information out through your computer's wireless adapter.  Then, using the number that you've dialed as a guide, your signal goes out to another device (i.e. another phone) that translates the data you sent back into a form that the other end can understand.  In the phone example, it's your voice for your friend to hear.  In Wi-Fi, it's data that the Internet can work with.

What are the different frequencies of Wi-Fi?

As you may have noticed in the previous section, we made an analogy of using a dialed phone number to help guide the connection to someone else via a cell phone.  Well, Wi-Fi works somewhat the same as that, but slightly differently, through a series of frequencies.

Wi-Fi has four general classes of frequencies: 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n.  Basically, each frequency type can carry a different amount of data at a different speed.  The order of these frequencies, from slowest/least data to fastest/most data, is: 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11a, and 802.11n.

Most wireless routers and adapters these days can jump between up to three of these frequencies at once.  This is useful for limiting the amount of information transfer consumed, which keeps your monthly Internet bill low.  It also helps to reduce interference between signals from different computers, which can let multiple devices use the same Wi-Fi access point to connect to the Internet.

What are "hotspots"?

"Hotspot" basically means any place where a Wi-Fi signal is available for a device to connect to the Internet.  Some are what are known as "open" hotspots that anyone can connect to, such as at airports or restaurants.  Others are "closed" hotspots, private ones that can only be accessed by inputting a password.

Usually, "closed" hotspots are wireless Internet access points that people set up at home.  They are usually password-protected to make sure that other people don't indiscriminately use them for criminal activities, or just things like watching online movies that take up a lot of your monthly data allowance (which could add up to a very expensive Internet bill!).  We'll talk about that more in our third lesson on how to set up a Wi-Fi router.

What are the main advantages and disadvantages of Wi-Fi?

Well, as we mentioned earlier, Wi-Fi is an industry standard technology.  That means that it can work with all sorts of electronic devices, such as laptops, cell phones, tablet computers, and even some video game consoles.  The other main advantage is, as its name implies, Wi-Fi is a wireless technology!  That means that several people can use it at once without having to manually plug their devices into a router.  It also means that they don't have to know exactly where the router is in order to connect to the Internet; they can just be in the general vicinity of the router, and they should still get a connection.

As for disadvantages of Wi-Fi, a main one is security.  Having people be able to connect to the Internet via radio waves instead of cables allows some people to use Wi-Fi when you might otherwise not want them to.  Fortunately, there are ways to avoid this by protecting your router with a password; we'll cover this in our lesson on how to change your Wi-Fi password.

The other main disadvantage of Wi-Fi is reliability.  Because your connection to the Internet is based on indirect radio waves, instead of a direct cable, there are certain areas where you will not be able to connect to the Internet very reliably over Wi-Fi.  There are also times when your Wi-Fi signal will be interfered with by other electronic equipment, and so it will be weak or unavailable.

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Well, that's a brief introduction to Wi-Fi, including what it is and how it works.  Next, we'll show you how it can be used to get on the Internet in our lesson on how to connect to Wi-Fi!