How WiFi works: Hardware, frequencies, and wireless standards

by | Dec 10, 2021

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The term “WiFi” has become interchangeable with “the internet.” Thanks to incredible advancements in technology (like WiFi 6), it’s hard to remember when we had to use a physical cable to connect online. Most of our devices now connect seamlessly to WiFi. So, thinking about how WiFi works may not even cross your mind while browsing, streaming, working, and gaming .

But having a general understanding of WiFi and its mechanics comes in handy when you experience lags or spotty connections. Let’s explore the behind-the-scenes machinery that makes your wireless network tick, including WiFi hardware, frequencies, and standards. This knowledge will help you optimize and maximize your user experience to enjoy your life online.

What is WiFi?

Despite popular belief, WiFi isn’t an abbreviation of “wireless fidelity.” It’s a branded term created for the first wireless standard (802.11) in 1999. Most of us now associate the term with “wireless internet.” You may also hear a wireless network called a WLAN, or “wireless local area network.” But don’t confuse the two terms. A wireless LAN refers to a network that links two or more devices wirelessly, whereas WiFi is a specific technology within the WLAN system.

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How does WiFi work?

WiFi uses radio waves to send data from the internet to your devices. Because theses radio waves can run into interference, the signals are typically transmitted at 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) and 5 GHz frequencies. The waves are sent back and forth between your computer and the internet.

Your setup may include a modem that connects to a wireless router or a gateway, which combines the router and modem. These plug into your jack via an Ethernet cable. Your gateway connects you to your internet provider’s network. Depending on your internet service, your WiFi hardware may include DSL lines, copper cables, coaxial cables, or fiber-optic wires . If you use a fiber internet service like Quantum Fiber, you’ll be connected through an optical fiber terminal, also known as a fiber jack.

Read more about what fiber-optic internet is and how to determine if you need it.

Does WiFi use radio waves?

Yes. Radio waves require a sending device and a receiving device. Those radio waves must be set to the same frequency for both devices to communicate. Dual-band WiFi signals use 2.4 and 5 GHz. Billions of gigahertz waves travel through the air per second. Compare that to radio frequencies that travel at megahertz (millions of waves per second) or kilohertz (thousands of waves per second).

WiFi isn’t the only technology that uses these radio frequencies. Many other electronic devices use the 2.4 GHz frequency, including baby monitors and garage door openers. These devices can sometimes cause interference with your WiFi signal. In many cases, the frequency only has to be similar to cause issues. , or Bluetooth can also potentially interfere with your WiFi signal.

2.4 GHz vs. 5 GHz WiFi frequencies

Each frequency has unique strengths. For example, 2.4 GHz offers a larger coverage area and can penetrate potential obstructions, like brick walls, more effectively. For that reason, many of your devices use the 2.4 GHz frequency, which impacts the available bandwidth and slows down internet speeds. This frequency is also more prone to interference and tends to have a slower data speed.

The 5 GHz frequency, on the other hand, provides faster speeds at a closer range. Fewer devices use this frequency because it works best when you’re closer to the router. 5 GHz is fast but may have difficulty passing through solid objects.

It’s generally best to use the 5 GHz frequency for devices near the router and 2.4 GHz speeds for those farther away. Many routers will automatically switch your devices from frequency to frequency as you move through your WiFi-connected space. If you experience lags or interference, you can also change frequencies manually.

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The evolution of wireless standards

Since the first network standard (802.11), WiFi has progressively improved in speed and efficiency. WiFi 4 introduced the dual-band frequencies (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) that come standard with wireless internet. Then came WiFi 5, offering better performance and speed. And now there’s WiFi 6, the next generation of wireless internet.

WiFi 6 is significantly faster than WiFi 5 (up about 6 gigabits per second (Gbps)).Those extra Gbps can be spread out among multiple devices, speeding up your entire network. With WiFi 6, your router can simultaneously talk to more connected smart devices while keeping a robust signal.

How does a mesh WiFi network work?

WiFi frequencies don’t always offer total connectivity, which can result in spotty service in certain areas of your home or workplace. Enter the mesh WiFi network.

A mesh WiFi network, also known as managed or whole-home WiFi, blankets your entire space with solid coverage. Access points called “nodes” help distribute the WiFi signal throughout your home or office. Each node acts as an individual router and broadcasts signals via radio waves.

Mesh WiFi networks, like Quantum Fiber ® 360 WiFiTM, are smart—really smart. They learn your internet habits and optimize coverage so your speeds stay fast and reliable. They also direct and route traffic across the entire network, keeping it connected and running smoothly.

What else do I need to know about WiFi and how it works?

Understanding how wireless internet works can be helpful when determining what type of service is best for you. This knowledge can also help if you run into network issues. Learn more about internet speeds, bandwidth, and security:

Knowledge is power. Before powering up your devices, it’s important to think about how you use the internet. Consider what bandwidth and speed you need, how many devices will be connected, and what equipment is required. By doing your homework up front, you’re setting yourself up for an optimal online experience.

Content Disclaimer - All content is for informational purposes only, may require user’s additional research, and is provided “as is” without any warranty, condition of any kind (express or implied), or guarantee of outcome or results. Use of this content is at user’s own risk. All third-party company and product or service names referenced in this article are for identification purposes only and do not imply endorsement or affiliation with Quantum Fiber. If Quantum Fiber products and offerings are referenced in the content, they are accurate as of the date of issue. Quantum Fiber services are not available everywhere. Quantum Fiber service usually means 100% fiber-optic network to your location but, in limited circumstances, Quantum Fiber may need to deploy alternative technologies coupled with a non-fiber connection from a certain point (usually the curb) to your location in order to provide the advertised download speeds. ©2023 Q Fiber, LLC. All Rights Reserved. Quantum, Quantum Fiber and Quantum Fiber Internet are trademarks of Quantum Wireless LLC and used under license to Q Fiber, LLC.

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