• United States
Josh Fruhlinger
Contributing writer

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

Jan 03, 20237 mins
MobileNetworkingSmall and Medium Business

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
Credit: Thinkstock

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 or LANs. 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 GHz frequency 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 like beamforming to allow networks to transmit data farther and more quickly, with less power.

The basic components of a Wi-Fi network include:

  • router, which does the work of managing the trafficamong the devices on the network.
  • wireless access point that provides the radio connection between the router and the local wireless devices.
  • modem that 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 deploy wireless extenderswhich “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 a mesh network, in which multiple extenders are coordinated to provide better coverage.

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 called wireless 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-facing IP address. It’s up the router to send any inbound network traffic to the correct device on the internal network.

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 of alphabet soup wasn’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-Fiwhich 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 the Wi-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.

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 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.

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 on Wi-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.