What Is a Wireless Network or Wi-Fi?
A wireless network refers to a computer network that makes use of Radio Frequency (RF) connections between nodes in the network. Wireless networks are a popular solution for homes, businesses, and telecommunications networks.
It is common for people to wonder “what is a wireless network” because while they exist nearly everywhere people live and work, how they work is often a mystery. Similarly, people often assume that all wireless is Wi-Fi, and many would be surprised to discover that the two are not synonymous. Both use RF, but there are many different types of wireless networks across a range of technologies (Bluetooth, ZigBee, LTE, 5G), while Wi-Fi is specific to the wireless protocol defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in the 802.11 specification and it’s amendments.
Wired vs. Wireless Network: What Is the Difference?
At the most obvious, a wireless network keeps devices connected to a network while still allowing them the freedom to move about, unencumbered by wires. A wired network, on the other hand, makes use of cables that connect devices to the network. These devices are often desktop or laptop computers but can also include scanners and point-of-sale machines.
There are more subtle technology differences that come in to play between wired and wireless. Most modern wired networks are now “full duplex”, meaning that they can be transmitting/receiving packets in both directions simultaneously. In addition, most wired networks have a dedicated cable that runs to each end user device.
In a Wi-Fi network, the medium (the radio frequency being used for the network) is a shared resource, not just for the users of the network, but often for other technologies as well (Wi-Fi operates in what are called ‘shared’ bands, where many different electronic devices are approved to operate). This has several implications: 1) unlike a wired network, wireless can’t both talk and listen at the same time, it is “half duplex” 2) All users are sharing the same space must take turns to talk 3) everyone can ‘hear’ all traffic going on. This has forced Wi-Fi networks to implement various security measures over the years to protect the confidentiality of information passed wirelessly.
Types of Wireless Connections
In addition to a LAN, there are a few other types of common wireless networks: personal-area network (PAN), metropolitan-area network (MAN), and wide-area network (WAN).
A local-area network is a computer network that exists at a single site, such as an office building. It can be used to connect a variety of components, such as computers, printers, and data storage devices. LANs consist of components like switches, access points, routers, firewalls, and Ethernet cables to tie it all together. Wi-Fi is the most commonly known wireless LAN.
A personal-area network consists of a network centralized around the devices of a single person in a single location. A PAN could have computers, phones, video game consoles, or other peripheral devices. They are common inside homes and small office buildings. Bluetooth is the most commonly known wireless PAN.
A metropolitan-area network is a computer network that spans across a city, small geographical area, or business or college campus. One feature that differentiates a MAN from a LAN is its size. A LAN usually consists of a solitary building or area. A MAN can cover several square miles, depending on the needs of the organization.
Large companies, for example, may use a MAN if they have a spacious campus and need to manage key components, such as HVAC and electrical systems.
A wide-area network covers a very large area, like an entire city, state, or country. In fact, the internet is a WAN. Like the internet, a WAN can contain smaller networks, including LANs or MANs. Cellular services are the most commonly known wireless WANs.
Wi-Fi Connection Modes
There are multiple Wi-Fi network connection styles, the most prevalent are: infrastructure, ad hoc, and Wi-Fi Direct.
Infrastructure mode is the most common style of Wi-Fi, and it is the one people think of when they connect at home or the office. With infrastructure mode, you need an access point that serves as the primary connection device for clients. All other clients in the network (computer, printer, mobile phone, tablet, or other device) connect to an access point to gain access to a wider network.
Ad hoc mode is also referred to as peer-to-peer mode because it does not involve an access point, but is instead made up of multiple client devices. The devices, acting as “peers” within the network, connect to each other directly.
Wi-Fi Direct is a form of Ad Hoc, but with some additional features and capabilities. Wireless connectivity is provided to compatible devices that need to connect without the use of an access point. Televisions are frequently Wi-Fi Direct compatible, allowing users to send music or images straight from a mobile device to their TV.
The term “Wi-Fi hotspot” usually refers to wireless networks placed in public areas, like coffee shops, to allow people to connect to the internet without having to have special credentials. While some are free, others require a fee, particularly those administered by companies that specialize in the provision of hotspots in places like airports or bus terminals.
Many cell phones are hotspot-enabled, and users can turn on the feature by contacting their cell service provider. With a hotspot turned on, the user can share their internet connection with someone else, providing them with a password for more secure access.