IPIQ: Wi-Fi

Difficulty level:  • •
By John Epeneter, product manager

It may seem ridiculous to ask the question, “What is Wi-Fi?” You may feel it’s like asking the question, “What is air?” But while Wi-Fi is recognized almost universally as an important technology, very little is understood about it.

Wi-Fi, or WiFi, is short for wireless fidelity, but really, it is understood to be wireless local area networking based on the IEEE 802.11 group of standards. Interestingly, WiFi is different from Wi-Fi, in that Wi-Fi (with a dash) is a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance, which provides interoperability certification testing for 802.11 based products.

But regardless of whether you use a dash, there are some basic principles of Wi-Fi that are important to understand.

How does Wi-Fi work?

A WiFi device transmits data over a wireless/radio frequency which is received by another device. From an Ethernet or TCP/IP perspective, the data is the same; it only differs in how it is transmitted (radio vs. twisted pair wires).

So how does my wireless data get out to the internet?

An AP (access point), or WAP (wireless access point), acts as a hub or bridge between the wireless and the wired world. In other words, your wireless device that has no clue what a wire is, still needs some way to get to the internet connection in the house (which is wired). So the AP acts as a bridge, letting you cross over from the wireless world to the wired. Once the AP transmits your data over a wire to the router, the router can then send your data out to the internet.

Okay, what’s with the Wi-Fi alphabet soup: 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac?

When Wi-Fi was first conceived, the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) created a new working group and gave them their own designation, 802.11 (802.3 is the working group for wired Ethernet). That group created their first standard for Wi-Fi and called it 802.11a. Of course, things have improved over time, and hence we have 802.11b… and then g and n and ac. If you are curious about the skipped letters, you can search, but most of them are amendments to earlier standards (for example, 802.11e is an amendment for QOS enhancements to Wi-Fi).

All that said, these standards specify what radio frequency can be used for transmissions. But don’t let that worry you; devices are generally backwards compatible, meaning the device will comply with multiple standards thus enabling older devices the ability to communicate with newer ones.

Have questions about Wi-Fi that weren’t answered in this post? Drop us a comment below, and we’ll answer them as quickly as possible!

Lindsay Bull