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Vangie Beal
Last Updated January 4, 2022 9:56 am

Wi-Fi is a wireless networking technology that uses radio waves to provide wireless high-speed Internet access. A common misconception is that the term Wi-Fi is short for “wireless fidelity,” however Wi-Fi is a trademarked phrase that refers to IEEE 802.11x standards.

Wi-Fi originated in Hawaii in 1971, where a wireless UHF packet network called ALOHAnet was used to connect the islands. Later protocols developed in 1991 by NCR and AT&T called WaveLAN became the precursor to the IEEE 802.11 standards.

The Wi-Fi Alliance was formed in 1999 and currently owns the Wi-Fi registered trademark. It specifically defines Wi-Fi as any “wireless local area network (WLAN) products that are based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ (IEEE) 802.11 standards.”

Initially, Wi-Fi was used in place of only the 2.4GHz 802.11b standard, however the Wi-Fi Alliance has expanded the generic use of the Wi-Fi term to include any type of network or WLAN product based on any of the 802.11 standards, including 802.11b, 802.11a, etc. in an attempt to stop confusion about wireless LAN interoperability.

How does Wi-Fi work?

Wi-Fi networks have no physical wired connection between sender and receiver. Instead, they function by using radio frequency (RF) technology a frequency within the electromagnetic spectrum associated with radio wave propagation. When an RF current is supplied to an antenna, an electromagnetic field is created that then is able to propagate through space.

The cornerstone of any wireless network is an access point (AP). The primary job of an access point is to broadcast a wireless signal that computers can detect and use to establish a connection to the network. In order to connect to an access point and join a wireless network, computers and devices must be equipped with wireless network adapters.

Recommended Reading: How Wireless Networks Work

Wi-Fi vs. Internet

Wi-Fi and Internet are closely related and often used interchangeably, but there are important distinctions between the two. First and foremost, the Internet is a wide area network (WAN) that uses a series of protocols to transmit information between networks and devices around the world. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is simply a means for connecting devices without cables.

It’s entirely possible to have a Wi-Fi connection with no Internet access if there is no modem or Internet service from an ISP. For this reason, the signal strength of a Wi-Fi network is not directly correlated to the Internet speed a user might experience when connected. It is also why isolated Internet connectivity issues are usually attributed to the user’s device or Wi-Fi network router as opposed to the ISP’s service.

Wi-Fi enabled devices

Wi-Fi is supported by many applications and devices including video game consoles, smart home devices, tablets, mobile phones, and other types of consumer electronics. This level of support sometimes requires a differentiation between Wi-Fi and Internet of Things (IoT). Whereas Wi-Fi is often used as a component of IoT, a complete IoT ecosystem is much more complex and enables multiple devices to communicate with one another simultaneously. With Wi-Fi, communication is usually restricted to one channel between the user and a device at a time.

Any products that are tested and approved as “Wi-Fi Certified” (a registered trademark) by the Wi-Fi Alliance are guaranteed to be interoperable with each other, even if they are from different manufacturers. This means a user with a Wi-Fi Certified product can use any brand of router or modem with any other brand of client hardware that is also deemed Wi-Fi Certified.

Products that pass this certification are required to carry an identifying seal on their packaging that states “Wi-Fi Certified” and indicates the radio frequency band used (2.5GHz for 802.11b, 802.11g, or 802.11n, and 5GHz for 802.11a). New generations of the 802.11x standard are released every few years to offer improved performance and security.

Top 5 Wi-Fi Related Questions

  1. What is the Wi-Fi Alliance?
  2. What is wireless?
  3. What is Wireless Lan (WLAN)?
  4. What is 802.11?
  5. What is Wi-Fi enabled?

UPDATED: This definition was updated on April 5, 2021 by Web Webster.