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Crash Course on the Basics of Wi-Fi

Organizations spend millions of dollars on their wireless networks but very few people understand how they really work

The more commonplace something becomes, the less remarkable it seems and the more people expect it to just work. Wi-Fi, for example, has become indispensable in the business and personal spheres—yet it’s still something of a mystery to millions who rely on it.

Even the name “Wi-Fi” is commonly believed to mean “wireless fidelity,” a mistaken notion that’s been around for a long time. In truth, this catchy term doesn’t technically stand for anything, despite representing one of the foundations of the modern world.

We’ve assembled the basics of wireless to put you in the know and dispel some additional myths:

Your Wi-Fi is not your Internet; it’s the bridge to get you there

Another common misconception is that wireless and “Internet access” are the same thing. Wi-Fi, aka wireless connection/802.11, is simply a gateway allowing computers, smartphones, or other devices to connect to the Internet or communicate with one another wirelessly within a particular area.

This is achieved through three steps: the transmission of information via radio waves, reception and decoding by a router, and finally being sent to the Internet via a wired Ethernet connection. This process works in reverse when data arrives from the Internet and is coded by the router into a radio signal that’s sent to wireless devices.

This is why, when issues arise, it’s important to make the distinction of whether it’s a problem with your wireless network or your Internet service provider (ISP).

Wireless works on multiple frequencies

The two most common frequency bandwidths are 2.4GHz (the 802.11b version and the faster 802.11g) and 5GHz (802.11a), though 900 MHz, 3.6 GHz, 4.9 GHz, 5.9 GHz, and 60 GHz bands are also utilized. The higher the frequency, the more data it can handle.

The 2.4GHz frequency breaks down into 11 channels in America and generally extends for 46 meters indoors and 92 meters outdoors. Users can boost the range of their Wi-Fi network by increasing the number of access points or routers, or by employing Wi-Fi boosters.

The 5GHz range has 24 channels and usually manages only around a third of the 2.4GHz’s reach. This is due to a higher susceptibility to obstructions like walls, doors and other solid objects which negatively impact signal transmission. The trade-off is that 2.4GHz is more vulnerable to radio interference.

Wireless signal and performance can be improved by identifying these sources of interference and removing them or rearranging the access points for optimum transmission.

Wi-Fi networks are busy places

The two most common frequencies operate via the ISM bands—Industrial, Scientific, and Medical. This means everyone can use these bands freely but that comes at a cost of them being potentially crowded by many users and devices. Also, consumer devices such as printers, cell phones, microwave ovens, and wireless keyboards, as well as anything that relies on a Bluetooth connection, emit radio waves which could interfere with wireless networks.

Wi-Fi speeds are theoretical

Your wireless service provider will advertise that your connection can handle a certain amount of data transfer in a certain amount of time. What they really mean is that those numbers are possible under ideal conditions. Your day-to-day wireless speed is affected by environmental obstructions, range, network interference, and the number of users on the bandwidth, meaning that real-world performance speed is usually below this optimum figure.

Wi-Fi is vulnerable to attacks, so security measures are vital

Cyberattacks are one of the fastest growing crimes in America, and cybercrime is predicted to cost the world $6 trillion a year by 2021. Vulnerable Wi-Fi is one way for criminals to get in. Assigning a strong password and changing it cyclically is the first step in basic security and should be followed by adding multi-layered encryption, a secure firewall, and—crucially—regular security updates to both software and hardware.

A router isn’t just a static box that carries signals. It’s a piece of hardware and software—aka firmware—and ISPs provide router updates which keep them as secure as possible. These upgrades should be checked for and applied periodically. If there are no longer any security updates for a router at all, that’s a strong sign it’s obsolete or is becoming so, and a newer model should be used.

Also, note that free Wi-Fi in public spaces is convenient and becoming more common but it carries many security risks. If a user connects to a free wireless network, they should never reveal personal information or make any financial transactions and/or use a virtual private network (VPN) to encrypt their information.

Join us for a free webinar on Wi-Fi basics

To learn more about Wi-Fi, including the basics and how to diagnose any issues, check out our next webinar on wireless 101. It’s free of charge (in fact, we’ll buy YOU a coffee) and attending this webinar will qualify the attendee for one Continuing Education (CE) credit toward CWNE, CWAP, CWSP, and CWDP certifications from Certified Wireless Network Professional.

You can also take advantage of the 7SIGNAL knowledge base to find resources, case studies, and advice on how we handle Wi-Fi issues.

7SIGNAL® is a leader in enterprise Wireless Network Monitoring. Our platform is a cloud-based Wireless Network Monitoring (WNM) solution that continuously troubleshoots the wireless network for performance issues – maximizing uptime, device connectivity, and network ROI. Contact us to discover how we continuously monitor the connectivity of over 4 million global devices.