Wi-Fi, or wireless networking, allows electronic devices including desktops, laptops, tablets and smart phones to access the internet without the need for wires or cables. By eliminating the need for expensive and tedious wiring projects, Wi-Fi has made it easier to create everything from secure home networks to public hotspots. As this type of technology has become more prevalent and more popular, manufacturers have been quick to advertise Wi-Fi capable products. If you're a little confused by these claims and would like to understand more about how Wi-Fi works, read through this simple explanation.
The Basic Principles of Wi-Fi
Wireless networking uses radio waves to communicate with mobile devices using the same principles as traditional radios, televisions, cell phones and two-way radios. Here's how it works:
1. The computer or cell phone uses a wireless adapter to convert your request into a radio signal and broadcasts it into the air.
2. The Wi-Fi device, or wireless router, picks up the signal and translates it back into its original form.
3. The router passes the request to the Internet using a hardwired connection.
4. The Internet returns the requested information to the router across the same connection.
5. The router converts the information into a radio signal and broadcasts it into the air.
6. The computer or cell phone's wireless adapter picks up the information and displays it on your screen.
How Does the Router Keep Track of Multiple Connections?
The basics are easy to follow, but how does the wireless router keep track of so many different users? Wireless routers include a complicated mix of hardware and software that keeps this information separated by mobile device.
The easiest way to understand it is to think about your mobile device as if it had a name tag. During the initial connection to the Wi-Fi network, the router records the name tag. From that point forward, all data passed between the router and the device includes the name tag as an identifying piece of information. This type of tagging allows your device to pick up the requested data and ignore the rest.
This works great most of the time. However, if the router has a problem or too many people try to use the Wi-Fi network, some devices can get kicked off or receive the wrong data. This is why every user should install some form of security app on their device if they plan on using Wi-Fi for Internet access.
How are Wi-Fi Signals Different?
Although wireless routers use the same type of radio waves as cell phones and radios, there is a difference. The radio waves created by wireless adapters and wireless routers are at much higher frequencies than those used by other devices. This means that radios and cell phones can't detect these waves and that the signals can carry the massive amounts of data required for internet usage.
What's a Wi-Fi Hotspot?
A hotspot is any area where you can sign-on to a Wi-Fi network as a guest and gain free access to the Internet. Many coffee shops, book stores and fast-food restaurants have created Wi-Fi hotspots to attract customers while libraries, hospitals and other public institutions provide the same functionality as a public service.
Wondering how you can tell if you're in a hotspot? Many locations advertise that free Wi-Fi is available, but all you really have to do is turn on your device. Any electronic item with an enabled wireless adapter automatically scans the airwaves and notifies you when it finds a network. Almost every smart phone includes a wireless adapter, but external wireless adapters are readily available for other devices that don't already have one installed.
Wi-Fi Access Points
Some smart phones are capable of being used as a mobile Wi-Fi access point, a much more controlled version of a hotspot. When this feature is activated, other mobile devices can gain access to the Internet by passing signals through the phone's wireless adapter.