Wi-Fi connectivity has become an expected feature in modern mobile computing that allows devices to establish fast wireless data connections to local networks and the internet. For expanded coverage, it can be complimented with a cellular mobile network.
Wi-Fi was originally a just branding term to promote the wireless technology created by the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance which later became known as simply the Wi-Fi Alliance. Wi-Fi was a play on the term hi-fi (high fidelity audio technology) to promote Wi-Fi’s interoperability between different wireless local area network (LAN) systems.
Radio waves are used to transmit the data between Wi-Fi enabled devices. The 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands have been used and the FCC recently approved 6GHz to be used in the latest version of Wi-Fi technology. There is also a specialized 60GHz standard called WiGig. The lower frequencies tend to have better range and travel through walls and obstacles better than higher frequencies.
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Wi-Fi is a set of wireless protocols based on the IEEE 802.11 LAN protocols established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
Initially the standard changes/updates were identified by adding/changing letters to the end of the original 802.11 standard for each update. Recently the Wi-Fi Alliance updated its naming strategy retroactively to attempt to make things less complicated. So now we have Wi-Fi 1, Wi-Fi 2, etc. up to the latest version, Wi-Fi 6.
The following is a brief history of Wi-Fi versions with their original 802.11 identification along with their new Wi-Fi Alliance identification:
- IEEE 802.11 – This was the first standard introduced in 1997 and is now obsolete.
- IEEE 802.11a / Wi-Fi 1 – This standard came out in 1999. It operates on the 5GHz band with the hope of encountering less interference and supports speeds up to 54Mbps.
- IEEE 802.11b / Wi-Fi 2 – This is another standard created in 1999 and uses the more common 2.4GHz band with a maximum speed of 11Mbps. It is what began Wi-Fi’s popularity and is nearing its end of life (EOL) along with 802.11a.
- IEEE 802.11g / Wi-Fi 3 – In 2003, the data rate on the more reliable 2.4GHz band was increased to a maximum of 54Mbps which furthered its widespread adoption.
- IEEE 802.11n / Wi-Fi 4 – Multi-channel usage was introduced in 2009. This upped the maximum data rate to 600Mbps operating on both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz band.
- IEEE 802.11ac / Wi-Fi 5 – This is the most common standard today. It was released in 2014 and increased data rates to a maximum of 1,300Mbps and added additional channels in the 5GHz band.
- IEEE 802.11ax / Wi-Fi 6 – The latest standard began rolling out in 2020. It boasts maximum speeds of 10Gps and has increased capacity with additional subchannels.
- Wi-Fi 6E – An extension of Wi-Fi 6, 6E will allow connections to broadcast over the 6GHz band. All previous standards were restricted to using either 2.4GHz or 5GHz or the combination of the two.
There is another lesser known standard, WiGig, that was introduced in 2012. It uses the 60GHz band to provide multi-gigabit speeds. It includes the IEEE 802.11ad and upcoming IEEE 802.11ay standard. Despite the extremely fast transmission speeds, WiGig has a limited range and typically cannot penetrate through walls. It is a special purpose technology for uses such as wireless virtual reality headsets and other wireless A/V applications.
Wi-Fi technology is used to wirelessly connect to local area networks and the internet for devices that are within range of the Wi-Fi signal. Use ranges from home Wi-Fi networks to business Wi-Fi networks. Mobile devices benefit from Wi-Fi connectivity because they can remain mobile without a wired Ethernet connection locking them in place.
Embedded systems and Internet of Things (IoT) devices can benefit from Wi-Fi connectivity for setup and for internet access without having to rely on a hardwired connection.
Another use is geolocation. A device’s location can be determined by Wi-Fi positioning systems that use the positions of Wi-Fi hotspots.
Ad hoc or direct connections between computers and devices is also possible through Wi-Fi without the need of an access point intermediary. Many consumer electronic devices support this such as portable gaming systems and digital cameras.
Wi-Fi technology offers many advantages with its widespread use, but at the same time there are some disadvantages worth considering.
- Ease of Deployment/Cost – Setting up a wireless network is a fairly simple and cost effective endeavor with the simplest requiring a single access point. Especially when compared to the cost and complexity of installing a wired network in a facility.
- Convenience and Productivity – Wi-Fi networks are just about everywhere. Not only can a user access a wireless network in home and work locations, but they can remain connected when traveling to other locations including lodging and restaurants.
- Exandability – Additional users can be connected to a Wi-Fi network without having to build out more infrastructure to add hardwired connections.
As with any technology, there are some downsides and limitations.
- Security – The biggest concern of wireless networks is network security. There are various encryption technologies used to protect these networks, but the fact that access to a wireless network can be made without having to physically connect to a hardwired access point makes it more vulnerable to attack.
- Reliability/Speed – Spectrum that Wi-Fi uses is shared with other wireless technologies and are subject to interference from those devices and even other Wi-Fi networks. This can affect the range the Wi-Fi signal covers and the speeds which are usually slower than a wired network connection.
With proper countermeasures and implementation, Wi-Fi is able to overcome these drawbacks and provide fast, secure wireless data connections.
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