In nearly every home, apartment, office, and pocket there is a device capable of sending and receiving information through a WiFi signal. It’s one of the most common technologies in use today, yet many of us don’t know how it actually works. Truly, WiFi is an amazing technology that makes the convenience and power of smartphones possible, and its methods are surprisingly simple. It has, without exaggeration, changed the world.
WiFi: The Origin of the Term
As a brief aside, the name of the technology has a curious origin. Contrary to popular belief, WiFi, isn’t actually an acronym for “Wireless Fidelity.” When the term was coined back in 1999, a very new wireless industry was seeking a catchy marketing name for the technology. They hired a brand consultancy agency, Interbrand, to develop a name. The company chose the short, simple, but nonetheless meaningless term, WiFi. At that time, the term hi-fi or “high-fidelity” referred to the quality of sophisticated sound systems, so “wireless fidelity” seemed like a logical assumption. Hence the misnomer.
How Does WiFi Work?
In order to understand how WiFi transmits information, one must first explore two key concepts, binary language and radio waves.
Computers communicate using a simplistic language called binary. Whether through a traditional wired network or over WiFi, a computer’s CPU only recognizes information in two states: on and off. These states are then represented by a series of 1s and 0s. Everything from a scholarly essay on theoretical physics to a cat GIF can be broken down into this fundamental language. In terms of WiFi, the binary language is communicated in six digit series.
WiFi and Radio Waves
Aside from wires, the key difference between Ethernet and WiFi networks is the way in which the binary language is transmitted. In an Ethernet network, information is converted into an electrical signal and transmitted through the internet.
WiFi takes a different approach — radio waves. However, WiFi has to transmit these waves at a different frequency than normally expected to avoid interference from other radio waves. Car stereos receive radio waves within the Kilohertz range for AM stations or Megahertz range for FM stations. WiFi then must transmit data in a range all its own, the Gigahertz range. More specifically, WiFi is sent at 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz.
Using Waves and Binary Language
To put it all together, a WiFi device establishes a two way conversation with a wireless access point to transmit and receive an enormous series of binary 1s and 0s. These “on” and “off” commands instruct each pixel on the computer to display the desired information. The result is a picture, video, or webpage accessed through the Internet.
Communicating the six digit series of 1s and 0s is just a matter of manipulating the waves in a way a computer can understand. The WiFi-enabled device emits these waves in pulses. The slight variation in height and starting place of the wave indicate, to whatever device is listening, the precise binary series.
A Wireless Network
The entire journey of device to access point to internet and back can be seen as a six step process. For the purposes of this example, we’ll use the Cisco Meraki MR34 as our wireless access point.
- A smartphone is connected to a WiFi network.
- The smartphone sends out radio waves to the Meraki MR34 asking to see our recent Meraki Blog Post.
- The Meraki MR34 is connected by cable to the LAN as well as the WAN. The smartphone’s request is transmitted through the access point, into the LAN, and out to the Internet where it searches for the location of the Mindsight Blog Post.
- Once found, the server where the blog post is stored sends the requested information back through the Internet to the LAN and back to the Meraki MR34.
- The Meraki MR34 then transmits radio waves which describe the webpage in binary code back to the smartphone.
- The smartphone opens the blog post.
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