These days, WiFi is interchangeable with “the internet.” Thanks to awesome advancements in technology (like WiFi 6), you may not even remember the olden days where you had to use an Ethernet cable to get online. Most of our devices connect to WiFi seamlessly, too. So, you may never even think about how WiFi works as you browse, stream, and game your way across the internet.

However, understanding how your WiFi works can help when you have a slow or spotty connection. In this article, we’ll look at all the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes your WiFi work, including the hardware, frequencies, and protocols. This information will help you optimize and maximize your internet experience, so you can truly enjoy an online life without limits.

What is WiFi?

Some people think WiFi is a shortened version of “wireless fidelity.” Actually, it’s a branded term created for the first standardized wireless protocol (802.11) in 1999. WiFi now means “wireless internet” for most of us.

Less often, wireless networks can be called WLAN, or “wireless local area network.”

A family watches a kid's show together on their laptop as they sit on the couch.

How WiFi works

WiFi relies on hardware (your gateway or modem/router), radio waves, and standardized protocols. We’ll break all these terms down, but let’s start with your internet service provider.

Whether you use Quantum Fiber (we hope so) or another internet service, the world wide web comes to your door through a network of wires. The type of wires that come into your neighborhood or your home varies depending on the kind of internet service you have. They may include DSL lines, copper cables, coaxial cables, or our favorite, fiber-optic wires. The network connects to your home, apartment, or office building through an optical fiber terminal, otherwise known as a fiber jack.

The hardware

Depending on your setup, you may have a separate modem and router or a device that includes both, known as a gateway. Either your gateway or your modem plugs into your jack via Ethernet cable. Your gateway connects you to your internet provider’s network. You can get online by linking directly to your modem or gateway using another Ethernet cable.

But nobody asks to borrow an Ethernet cable when they come to visit you at home. They ask you for the WiFi password. And that’s where your router comes in.

A router broadcasts your internet connection as a radio signal. You can use the internet wirelessly thanks to tiny antennas in your devices that pick up the distributed internet signal.

Radio waves make WiFi possible

Radio waves require both a sending device and a receiving device. For both devices to communicate, those radio waves must be set to the same frequency. Dual-band WiFi signals use 2.4 Gigahertz (GHz) 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. Lots of electronic devices use the 2.4 GHz frequency, like baby monitors and garage door openers. These can cause some interference with your WiFi signal. Sometimes, the frequency just has to be similar to cause issues. IoT devices that use Zigbee, Z-Wave, or Bluetooth can also interfere with your WiFi signal.

What’s the difference between 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz?

Each frequency has its strengths, depending on the circumstances. For example, 2.4 GHz offers a larger coverage area and can more effectively go through solid objects like brick walls. For that reason, many of your devices may use the 2.4 GHz frequency, which can impact the available bandwidth and slow down internet speeds. It’s 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 are usually on this frequency because it works best when you are close to the router. While fast, 5 GHz may struggle to pass through solid objects.

It’s generally best to use the 2.4 GHz speeds for devices further away from the router. Any devices that are in the same room can be on the 5 GHz frequency. Many routers will switch your devices from frequency to frequency automatically as you move through your home, apartment, or place of business. If, however, you’re experiencing slow internet or WiFi interference, you can give it a try yourself and switch frequencies manually.

A man checks the news on his desktop computer in his home office.

Wireless protocols and standards

Since the first protocol (802.11), WiFi has improved in both speed and efficiency. For example, 802.11n, also known as WiFi 4, introduced the dual-band frequencies (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) that come standard with wireless internet. Then, WiFi 5 (802.11ac) came along. Now, we’re reaching the next generation of wireless internet with WiFi 6 (802.11ax).

WiFi 6 is a significant speed improvement compared to WiFi 5 (up about 6 Gbps). Those extra Gbps can be spread out among multiple devices, speeding up your entire network. With WiFi 6, your router can talk to more of your connected smart things simultaneously and keep your signal strong. For maximum speed and performance, we recommend using the C4000 for your Quantum Fiber internet service.

How mesh WiFi networks work

Since WiFi frequencies don’t always offer total connectivity, you may experience spotty internet in some places in your home. Enter the mesh WiFi network.

Also known as managed WiFi or whole-home WiFi, these networks blanket an entire building in WiFi coverage. To do so, it uses access points called “nodes” that help distribute your WiFi signal throughout your home or office. Each node acts as an individual router and broadcasts a WiFi signal via radio waves.

Mesh WiFi networks, like Quantum Fiber 360 WiFi, are smart too. They can learn your internet habits and optimize coverage, so your speeds stay fast and reliable. They direct and route traffic across your entire network, keeping everything connected and running smoothly.

Last words

Most of the time, you don’t need to know how WiFi works to enjoy wireless internet. But we hope you’ll keep this article in mind if you experience any interference or spotty WiFi. For more on the internet, check out the following blogs:

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.