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

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

wireless symbol
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Most people are aware of the wireless icon symbol on a computer or smartphone that indicates a successful wireless LAN connection, but fewer understand the origins of the technology that has been dubbed as Wi-Fi.

Interestingly, the term Wi-Fi originally did not represent the technology itself, but rather was a branding term devised to promote and support interoperability between different wireless LAN systems. Wi-Fi was never a shortened version of wireless fidelity; it was  just a pun on the word hi-fi (high fidelity), an homage to high-quality audio technology.

The term Wi-Fi was created by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, which later became the Wi-Fi Alliance. In April 2000, the group announced the first set of Wi-Fi Certified products, starting with IEEE 802.11b products. Now more than 20 years later, there are more than 15 billion Wi-Fi products in use around the world, according to the alliance.

At the time, the products included access points and personal computer network adapter cards, which were used to wirelessly connect computers to broadband internet options. Before wireless, network connections on a LAN or over the broader Internet were done through either wired Ethernet connections or people via modem connections over their telephone line.

As the technology progressed, and networking vendors began producing wireless products, the Wi-Fi certification program and its logo would tell consumers that one product would interoperate with another. As the technology grew beyond 802.11b 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.

What is Wi-Fi?

In a general sense, Wi-Fi refers to the wireless LAN technologies that utilize the IEEE 802.11 standards for communications. Wi-Fi products use radio waves to transmit data from a client device to either an access point, which includes a router, and the router completes a connection to other devices on the LAN, WAN or the internet.

Initially the technology used the 2.4 GHz frequency, but has since expanded to 5 GHz, 60 GHz, and soon 6 GHz frequency bands. (A competing standard, known as HomeRF, also supported wireless connections, but vendors and customers eventually chose Wi-Fi and the 802.11 protocols as the wireless standard.)

802.11 confusion

A big reason the term Wi-Fi caught on is because it was simpler than trying to keep up with the “alphabet soup” that was created by the names of each subsequent standard for the technology as it evolved. Oddly, 802.11b was developed before 802.11a, and then it evolved into 802.11g, 802.11n and other letters. Instead of having users memorize which letters they were using on a particular device to see if it would connect, people just started to refer to the entire technology as Wi-Fi.

More recently, to add specificity to the term Wi-Fi, a naming convention tacks on a number. So, for example,  technology compliant with 802.11ax is called Wi-Fi 6.

Wi-Fi differs from other wireless technologies, including Bluetooth and the wide-area cellular networking used by wireless service providers that use terms 3G, 4G, 5G, etc. In basic terms, Bluetooth is utilized for short-range wireless connections (for example, from a smartphone to a speaker or headphones), Wi-Fi is used for LAN connections such as in a home or office setting, and longer-range connections use 4G and 5G. While some of these technologies can overlap with each other, the distance comparison is generally accepted as a rule of thumb.

Securing 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 with a Wi-Fi receiver. The Wi-Fi Alliance addressed by adding different security protocols to the standard, including the latest, 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.

Beyond computers and routers

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 products.

Why Wi-Fi still matters

Now more than 20 years after its inception, Wi-Fi isn’t going anywhere. In addition to supporting short-distance connectivity (such as 60 GHz offerings for technologies such as virtual reality), the Wi-Fi Alliance is working on interoperability certifications for Wi-Fi 6 products, which operate over the recently opened 6 GHz frequency band. Certification for Wi-Fi 6E (the brand name for Wi-Fi 6 devices supporting 6 GHz) will be available in early 2021, although like previous versions, products from vendors are likely to hit the market earlier followed by firmware upgrades to match the official standard.

The 6 GHz technology is expected to bring more than 6x the total capacity of 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies, as well as seven contiguous 160 MHz channels, providing less interference from legacy Wi-Fi devices, and multigigabit Wi-Fi speeds. Because 6 GHz is unlicensed spectrum, there is some concern that cellular service providers will utilize the spectrum for their own cell phone networks (enhancing existing 5G services, for example).

Beyond the additional spectrum, Wi-Fi upgrades will focus on improving connection speeds, congestion reduction, interoperability and new devices that can provide networking connectivity to a local network or the internet. New initiatives and concepts such as ambient computing, or Wi-Fi Aware for proximity-based discovery, will drive the technology in additional directions. With more than 50,000 different types of products capable of supporting Wi-Fi, the technology is here to stay.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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