Everywhere you go, you will likely hear the phrase "Wi-Fi". Maybe it's the restaurant claiming it has free wifi or a friend asking for the wifi password. You use Wi-Fi all the time, but there's a good chance you don't really know what it is or how it works. Some people might tell you that Wi-Fi is just another term for the internet, but that's not exactly true.
There's a lot to learn about how wireless technology works and how you can use Wi-Fi to improve your web experience.
How does Wi-Fi work?
Although Wi-Fi is typically used to access the internet on portable devices such as smartphones, tablets, or laptops, Wi-Fi itself is used to connect to a router or other access point, which in turn provides internet access. Wi-Fi is a wireless connection to this device, not the Internet. It also provides access to a local network of connected devices. Because of this, you can wirelessly print pictures or view a video feed from Wi-Fi connected cameras without the need for a physical connection to them.
Instead of using wired connections such as Ethernet, Wi-Fi uses radio waves to carry information at specific frequencies, most typically 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. However, there are many others that are used in niche settings. Each frequency range has multiple channels on which wireless devices can operate to distribute the load so that individual devices don't see their signals crowded or interrupted by other traffic – even though this is the case on busy networks.
The typical range of a standard WiFi network can be up to 100 meters outdoors. However, buildings and other materials will reflect the signal, making most Wi-Fi networks far tighter. As a rule, ranges of 10 to 35 meters are more common. The strength of the antenna and the frequency transmission can also affect the effective range of the network. Higher frequencies such as 5 GHz and 60 GHz have much shorter effective ranges than 2.4 GHz.
Anyone within range of a network and a compatible Wi-Fi device can discover the network and try to connect. This enables operation in both private and public environments, but raises security concerns. This is why standards like WPA, WPA2 and WPA3 exist, and it is important that you change your password if you think someone is accessing your network without permission.
What is 802.11?
When used in conjunction with Wi-Fi, 802.11, or IEEE 802.11, a number of protocols are often spoken of that specify the type of communication that can take place on a Wi-Fi network on different wireless frequencies.
Prior to the recent naming convention change, 802.11 was also an integral part of the name for every subsequent generation of Wi-Fi connectivity. It is usually followed by a letter or series of letters and is still part of the technical name for each Wi-Fi generation. However, simpler naming schemes are now used, identified by generations.
Which devices use Wi-Fi?
Duo – laptop screen extender
Wi-Fi devices are everywhere. Most routers offer Wi-Fi connectivity, and almost every product with smart features depends on it for a stable and robust connection to the Internet. Virtually all modern smartphones support this, as do tablets, laptops and some desktops. It can also be added to computers with USB dongles.
Smart TVs almost always support Wi-Fi connectivity and so do many Internet of Things devices such as smart fridges and cameras. There are also Wi-Fi printers, scanners, clocks, game consoles, digital radios, and even cars. The use cases for Wi-Fi are almost limitless given the wide range of connected services.
There are also Wi-Fi adjacent devices. These are devices that use radio waves that are very close to the traditional Wi-Fi spectrum, but are not considered Wi-Fi because they do not connect to the Internet in the same way. A good example would be the ZigBee protocol, which was developed for the communication of earlier intelligent devices with low power consumption and in some forms still exists today. Bluetooth is another example – it works on the 2.4 GHz frequency like Wi-Fi but is used to connect two short range devices. Then there is Wi-Fi Direct, which uses Wi-Fi signals for a private, direct connection but doesn't create a larger online network.
What are the different versions of Wi-Fi?
The very first wireless network was established in 1971. Known as ALOHAnet, it was the forerunner of modern standards like 802.11 and served as a proof of concept for the wireless network for decades to come.
It wasn't until 1997 that the very first version of the 802.11 protocol was released, which offers speeds of up to 2 Mbit per second. This was improved to 11 Mbit per second two years later and ratified as 802.11b. In the same year, the Wi-Fi Alliance was established as a non-profit organization to maintain the Wi-Fi brand, monitor technology advancement, and provide a certification process for companies wishing to sell products with Wi-Fi compatibility. Today it includes hundreds of companies, including industry giants like Apple, Dell, and Facebook.
Many generations of Wi-Fi connectivity have been released over the past two decades. Most modern devices use 802.11n, 802.11ac, and more recently 802.11ax. These technologies opened up a wider range of potential frequencies to reduce network congestion as well as higher data rates. The fastest today offer up to 15 Gbps, although slower speeds are more common.
In late 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance announced its intention to adopt a new naming convention for Wi-Fi generations. Starting with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), they are referenced with this simple naming scheme to help the public understand what new standards will do as they are released.
Switch to Wi-Fi 6
Wi-Fi 6 is more than just a new naming convention – it's also a massive upgrade to the Wi-Fi standard that is changing how Wi-Fi works. Some of the important things that Wi-Fi 6 brings to Wi-Fi everywhere are:
Lower latency: This means the data will flow more smoothly with fewer delays and the overall experience will be improved.
Much higher speeds: Wi-Fi 6 greatly improves data transfer speed when connecting to a single device. Our tests showed an improvement of 60%. In addition, Wi-Fi 6 is designed to be used in crowded rooms where there may be many people on the same network. Hence, public Wi-Fi should improve dramatically, especially in crowded areas.
Better battery life:: Because Wi-Fi 6 has improved the efficiency of finding and identifying devices, it contributes to better overall battery life for any device. This is because it now takes less time for your device to search for WiFi.
Better household WiFiI: Wi-Fi 6 also uses an advanced one Form of MU-MIMO This is ideal for the average household. Routers can connect to up to eight devices at the same time instead of sending data packets to each device one after the other. A good quality connection with fewer problems and greater stability means fewer problems for the network.
Many Wi-Fi 6 routers are now available, but it will be some time before the standard is fully adopted. For Wi-Fi 6 to work, you need both a router and a device that is compatible with Wi-Fi 6. Few devices have made this leap so far (the latest phone lines like the iPhone 11 are the first to be Wi-Fi 6 compatible). You probably don't have the latest smartphones, computers, and tablets. So you don't have to worry about a Wi-Fi 6 router just yet.