What Is a Wireless Network or Wi-Fi?

A wireless network refers to a computer network that makes use of wireless 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 want to know what is Wi-Fi, and many would be surprised to discover that the two are slightly different. Both use a wireless connection, but a wireless network can make use of a range of technologies, while Wi-Fi refers to a specific wireless protocol.

The internet has evolved significantly compared to when it first became popular in homes and businesses decades ago. With more and more mobile devices available, the majority of connections are made wirelessly, whereas when the internet first started to gain popularity, wired connections, such as those through Ethernet, were far more common.

 

Wired vs. Wireless Network: What Is the Difference?

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.

With a wireless device, it is possible for the user to roam a significant distance from the router, which provides the internet signal to the network. The system may also use access points that amplify the Wi-Fi and networking signal, so users can be even farther away.

With a wired network, the user is tethered to the router. This often works well if the user has no need to move their device, such as when they are using a desktop computer or a fixed workstation.

 

The Components of a Wireless Network

Several components make up a wireless network’s topology:

  1. User devices: Users have the option of connecting a variety of devices to the network, including phones, tablets, laptops, desktops, and more. This gives users the ability to move about the area without sacrificing their bridge to the network. In some instances, mobility within an office, warehouse, or other work area is necessary. For example, if employees have to use scanners to register packages due to be shipped, a wireless network provides the flexibility they need to freely move about the warehouse.
  2. Access points: An access point consists of a radio card that is able to communicate with devices on a local-area network (LAN) or a wired network that works with a distribution system like Ethernet. Software embedded within the access point connects the wireless LAN to its distribution side. Each access point comes with its own features, including management options and security functions.
  3. Radio network interface cards (NICs): A wireless LAN depends on a radio NIC to communicate with devices connected to the network. The wireless NIC is also sometimes called a “radio card.” The most common protocol involves the use of the 802.11 standard. To connect to the network, the device has to use the same standard; otherwise, it would be incompatible with the network.
  4. Router: Routers forward data packets. They are in control of directing internet traffic by receiving and forwarding these packets to devices connected to the network.
  5. Network adapter: A network adapter helps devices communicate over the LAN. It connects a computer to the internet or to another computer. A wireless network adapter takes signals from the computer and converts them into radio waves. These waves are then transmitted using an antenna, which may be either visible or hidden inside the device.

How Does Wi-Fi Work? The Functioning of a Wireless Network

A wireless network sends signals using radio waves, which make them very similar to cellular phones and radios in that sense. A wireless device receives a radio wave from the router and then transforms it into a digital signal, consisting of 1s and 0s. When it is time for the device to send something out to the network, it takes digital information and converts it to radio waves, which are then converted back to 1s and 0s by the receiving network device.

When a wireless router gets a signal, it first has to decode it. After decoding, the router sends the information along to the internet through Ethernet, which is a special physical connection consisting of sets of wires that work together.

As the radios inside the router and devices transmit information, they use specific frequencies, such as 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. Even though a wireless network may be operating in the same room as a cellular phone or radio, the signals do not clash because the frequencies of wireless networks are far higher than those of other common radio-based devices. Also, because the frequency is higher, the signal can carry more data, making it possible for higher-resolution images to move across the network at faster speeds.

 

Networking Standards

The networking standard used by wireless architecture is 802.11. However, this standard breaks down into various sub-standards, each with its own unique attributes.

802.11a

802.11a sends a 5 GHz signal and is capable of transmitting as much as 54 megabits of data per second. The 802.11a standard also makes use of orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), which is a more efficient technique of coding. It splits the radio signal into sub-signals before they get to a receiver. This helps cut down on interference.

802.11b

802.11b is a slower and less costly standard. Its lower cost gave it appeal early on, but because faster standards are becoming more affordable, 802.11b is starting to lose some of its clout. 802.11b sends a signal using the 2.4 GHz frequency and it can take as much as 11 megabits of data in a second. It uses complementary code keying (CCK) modulation to achieve better speeds.

802.11g

802.11g also transmits data at 2.4 GHz. It uses the same OFDM coding as the 802.11a standard, which allows it to transmit as much as 54 megabits of data every second.

802.11n

The most popular standard is 802.11n, partially because it is backward compatible with 802.11a, b, and g. This protocol offers better speed when compared to those that came before it. For example, even though 802.11g has the ability to transmit 54 megabits of data each second, it actually only sends around 24 megabits each second due to network congestion. 

On the other hand, 802.11n can send data at speeds as high as 140 megabits per second. It can also send as many as four streams of data at the same time. Even though this could give it an inherent advantage, the majority of routers can only handle two or three streams at the same time.

802.11ac

802.11ac is newer than the rest and backward compatible with all of the other standards. It does a better job with avoiding interference, and it is much faster than the other 802.11s. 802.11ac can transmit as much as 450 megabits of data every second using a single stream. Similar to 802.11n, it can send multiple streams of data, as many as eight at one time. 

It is sometimes referred to as “5G” because it transmits on the 5 GHz band. It is also called “gigabit Wi-Fi” because it can send more than a gigabit of data every second if it uses multiple streams. Further, it is referred to as very high throughput (VHT) because it allows for high volumes of data to be sent through the network within a short period of time.

Other 802.11 Standards

Additional 802.11 standards are designed for particular wireless network applications, such as wide-area networks (WANs) inside vehicles or technology that allows you to transition between wireless networks without suffering significant performance lags.

Wi-Fi radios are able to send data over any of three frequency bands. They can also hop from one band to another. This enables them to reduce interference and allows for more than one device to make use of the same wireless connection at the same time.

Multiple Devices on One Router

If several devices all have wireless adapters, they can all use the same router to connect to the internet. This offers a convenient solution in situations where people have to share the same internet connection. Problems arise, however, if too many people start downloading or uploading bandwidth-demanding material. 

For example, if several users are watching high-definition video at the same time, they may experience drops in performance because the router cannot handle all the data at the same time.

Wi-Fi Hotspot

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 use their own data. 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.

Individuals can create their own hotspots if they have a mobile device capable of doing so. Many cell phones are hotspot-enabled, and users can turn on the feature by contacting their cell service provide. With a hotspot turned on, the user can share their internet connection with someone else, providing them with a password for more secure access. 

With a personal hotspot, the individual’s internet data—as well as download and upload speeds—get shared with whoever joins. As a result, both may experience a slower connection, particularly when viewing or sending bandwidth-heavy data.

 

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).

LAN 

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 often consist of affordable components like network adapters, hubs, and Ethernet cables.

PAN

A personal-area network consists of a computer 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.

MAN

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.

WAN

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.

 

Wi-Fi Connection Modes

There are three Wi-Fi connection modes: infrastructure, ad hoc, and Wi-Fi Direct.

Infrastructure Mode

With infrastructure mode, you need a central access point that serves as the central connection device. Every computer, printer, mobile phone, tablet, or device connects to a single access point.

Ad Hoc Mode

Ad hoc mode is also referred to as peer-to-peer mode because it does not require a central access point. The devices, acting as “peers” within the wireless network, connect to each other directly.

Wi-Fi Direct Mode

With Wi-Fi Direct mode, wireless connectivity is provided to compatible devices that need to connect without the use of the access point or a wireless network router. Televisions are frequently Wi-Fi Direct compatible, allowing users to send music or images straight from a mobile device to their TV.

 

What Is Wi-Fi Direct?

Wi-Fi Direct is a standard that enables peer-to-peer wireless communication between two devices that establish their own Wi-Fi connection without using an access point as an intermediary. As a result, a Wi-Fi Direct connection does not need a router or connection to the internet.

 

What Is a Wi-Fi Hotspot?

Wi-Fi hotspots are access points that give you the ability to connect to a Wi-Fi network while away from a home or office network. There are public Wi-Fi hotspots, such as those in restaurants and airports, as well as private ones issued from someone’s cell phone.

People use Wi-Fi hotspots primarily for their enhanced convenience. They may be away from their home or office but still want to enjoy content or access important files. A Wi-Fi hotspot, whether free or for a fee, provides access to Wi-Fi without forcing people to use a data plan.

 

How Do Devices Connect to a Wireless Network?

To connect to a wireless network, a device’s wireless adapter translates digital data into a radio wave signal, which is then sent via an antenna. A wireless router takes the signal and decodes it back into data. The router then transmits the information to the internet using an Ethernet connection.

 

How To Secure a Home Wireless Network

To prevent malware from invading your devices or hacking your system, it is important to secure your home network as part of an effective wireless management system. Three ways of doing this are preventing service set identifier (SSID) broadcasting, media access control (MAC) address restrictions, and encryption.

Disabling the SSID Broadcast

When you disable the SSID broadcast, you prevent other users from detecting your SSID, which is your wireless network name. This way, when they try to find networks in the area, yours will not pop up in their device’s results.

MAC Address Restrictions

Filtering the MAC address allows you to set up a list of devices that can use your network. Unless a device is specifically listed, the MAC restrictions will prevent its access.

Encryption

Enabling encryption adds a layer of protection because users will have to enter a password to get on your network. This is a popular wireless network solution that simplifies the process of Wi-Fi management. Encryption is relatively simple to set up, and it is easy to change the password if it becomes known to the wrong people.

 

What Are the Benefits of a Wireless Wi-Fi Network?

To connect to a wireless network, a device’s wireless adapter translates digital data into a radio wave signal, which is then sent via an antenna. A wireless router takes the signal and decodes it back into data. The router then transmits the information to the internet using an Ethernet connection.

  1. Enhanced efficiency: When you have better data communications, the result is faster and more efficient transfer of information between individuals engaged in business. Whether you want to streamline communication with customers or those within your office, a wireless network makes it easier. It can also be used to track inventory or manage a shipment system.
  2. Access and availability: Anyone with a device can connect to a wireless network. There is no need for cables or adapters, and users can move about the network area without having to worry about losing their connection.
  3. Cost savings: Wireless networks often cost less to install. They are also less expensive to maintain.
  4. Flexibility: With a wireless network, businesses have the freedom to connect with employees and other stakeholders in a variety of ways, whether they are on the road, at home, or in the office.
  5. New opportunities: With a wireless network, you may be able to offer new services or products. For example, a business can offer a paid Wi-Fi subscription to visitors and patrons, resulting in an extra source of income.

How To Deploy a Wireless Network

To connect to a wireless network, a device’s wireless adapter translates digital data into a radio wave signal, which is then sent via an antenna. A wireless router takes the signal and decodes it back into data. The router then transmits the information to the internet using an Ethernet connection.

Deploying a wireless network can be accomplished using centralized, converged, or cloud-based deployment.

 

Centralized Deployment

Centralized deployment allows top-level groups but not groups of users that make up sub-groups to access the network. It can also let individual users use the network.

Converged Deployment

With converged deployment, several elements of infrastructure are involved in the deployment of the network. This can involve computers, storage devices, and various networking hardware.

Cloud-based Deployment

With a cloud-based deployment system, you manage the wireless local-area network (WLAN) on your site, but software updates and changes to the network’s security system are all done in the cloud.

Common Home Wi-Fi Devices

Home Wi-Fi connections are facilitated by devices such as access points, routers, and Wi-Fi repeaters. An access point is a device that enables other Wi-Fi devices to communicate with a wired network. Even though an access point typically connects to a Wi-Fi router as its own device, it can also be a part of the router itself.

The router sends data packets to organize data that travels across a network. The router receives the data packets, and with the help of a packet tracker, sends them on to the next destination, which could be a device or a Wi-Fi repeater.

A Wi-Fi repeater helps extend the network by boosting the signal. If someone is in an area of the home the signal cannot reach, the repeater, when placed closer to that area, can transmit the signal to that user.

 

Wi-Fi Management and Security Solutions

Wi-Fi management and security helps prevent unwanted users and data from harming devices connected to your network. With the FortiGate Integrated Controller, you get a full view of the network and devices that are accessing it. It integrates with the Fortinet Security Fabric, allows for cloud access point management, and comes with a dedicated controller.

The FortiGate Integrated Wireless Management system gives you an enhanced security solution that incorporates fewer components, making it a simpler solution. As a next-generation firewall (NGFW), FortiGate provides full network visibility while automating protective measures and detecting and stopping more threats.

 

Key Takeaways

A wireless network enables you to allow users to connect when and how they want. You can use a LAN, PAN, MAN, or WAN, depending on the needs and size of your organization. Devices connect using standards, such as the various 802.11 protocols, that dictate the frequency of the connection and its speed. The FortiGate Integrated Controller and Integrated Wireless Management solutions keep your devices and network well-organized and safer.