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How Does Wi-Fi Internet Actually Work?

November, 12 2014

know your network basics how wifi works techspert servicesNetworks are all around us, but do we know how they work? In this series, we’ll look at the basics of computer networking, from hardware components to security practices. This is the third post in the series. To read the preceding post, click here.

Wireless Internet will overtake wired Internet in the next five years. This is according to the Cisco® Visual Networking Index™ Global Forecast and Service Adoption for 2013 to 2018—or, in other words, what one of the world’s largest IT companies thinks about the future of the Internet. This includes both cellular Internet (which you get from your mobile phone carrier) and Wi-Fi Internet.

So we’re pretty confident in saying that Wi-Fi is Big Stuff in the world of networking. Sure, it’s not the only wireless networking protocol out there (ahem, Bluetooth, ahem), but it’s the one we know and love. The question is:

How Does Wi-Fi Internet Actually Work?

To understand Wi-Fi, it helps to imagine your home as possessing a very small radio station. After all, Wi-Fi operates on radio waves, the same as TV, radio, and your cordless landline phone, if you still have one.

Here’s what happens:

  1. Data from the Internet travels into your home via a modem. Cable, DSL, fiber optic, or satellite doesn’t really matter at this point, except in terms of the speed of your connection. Your modem converts the data into a format that your computer will understand.
  2. Your router connects to your modem and broadcasts this signal throughout your home or place of business. If you use a wireless gateway, these two functions may be handled by the same piece of equipment. Refer to last week’s post for a quick refresher on different types of network hardware.
  3. A component in your preferred device, known as a wireless receiver or wireless network adapter, picks up this signal. And just like that, you’re connected to the rest of the world.

The Pitfalls of Wi-Fi

Because Wi-Fi is based on radio waves, the signal strength can vary. It’s not unlike listening to your favorite radio station while on a road trip. As you get farther from the tower, the signal gets weaker, breaks up, and eventually fades away. Your Wi-Fi signal does the same. But it’s not only distance that can conquer the signal; walls, doors, floors, and even other wireless devices can interfere with a good Wi-Fi signal.

We’ve already written a post on finding and fixing Wi-Fi dead zones. You can refer to that for ideas on the proper equipment and placement strategies. In a nutshell, if your signal is weak, you can amplify it at the source, repeat it at various points in your home or office, try to connect a second router to your network, or just go ahead and spend some cash on a better, stronger, newer model.

Another potential pitfall of Wi-Fi is that everyone can connect to it. This is especially true if you’re using an open, unsecure connection—which we really hope you’re not. Even if you have a secured connection, an easy-to-guess password means that your network and all the devices attached to it are easy targets for the unscrupulous user.

In an upcoming post, we’ll discuss more practices for network security and password management. Be sure to check in again next week!

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Featured image credit: 123rf.com

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