Wi-Fi’s older than it may seem, as it spent quite some time at the fringe of new tech. The market was already flooded with dial up internet, and replacing it was going to take quite a bit of doing. When it first launched, it had an average speed of 2 mbps, which is actually pretty good, about four times faster than dial up, which had a max speed of 56 kbps. However, systems were so heavily dependent on that dial up system that it took many years for it to become the standard.
Wi-Fi is understood to mean Wireless Fidelity, but apparently nobody in the labs that studied or made it ever designated Wi-Fi as the official shortening of that term, it just sort of happened, and then licensing and officiating went from there.
Kind of Like Radio
AM and FM radio have been around for decades, now, and they work fairly similarly to Wi-Fi if Wi-Fi did both at the same time. AM radio changed the amplitude of the waves to transmit information across different bands, where FM changes the frequency of the band. However, AM and FM stick to kilohertz and megahertz frequencies, while Wi-Fi is in the significantly higher gigahertz frequencies.
Electromagnetic Radiation is a spectrum: at one end, there is infrared radiation which is extremely low-frequency, and at the other, gamma radiation, which is extremely high frequency. Visible light falls somewhere near the infrared side, where red is closer to the low end and violet is closer to the high end. Microwaves fall on the low side. A 2.4 GHz microwave has a gap between wave crests about the size of a baseball – the waves aren’t nearly as close together as they are in visible light. (Note – a microwave oven has the same frequency, it is much higher energy than Wi-Fi. Loud sounds can be the same pitch, or frequency, as quiet sounds, the same goes for microwaves). Microwaves, just like colors, are broken up into bands, and different frequencies can do different things. For this article, we’re focusing on information transmission.
What Can Stop Wifi?
Wi-Fi does get weaker when walls or other obstacles get in the way, although this is usually a good thing – there are only so many viable ‘bands’ for Wi-Fi to transmit over, just like radio, so crowded buildings would run out of available bands if they weren’t so easily stopped. While microwave ovens use metal, eventually those same microwaves would be stopped if they came into contact with walls or other solid materials. Eventually, distance also stops Wi-Fi. The waves lose energy as they travel and then carried information is lost.
Bluetooth devices can interact poorly with Wi-Fi as well – they work on similar principles, but Bluetooth is much weaker. If your headphones are undetectable to your phone, even when your device is on, it’s possible the Bluetooth is being drowned out by local Wi-Fi. Bluetooth typically has a range of about 30 feet, compared to Wi-Fi’s much larger 240 feet in ideal conditions.
How Does Protecting WiFi work?
Wi-Fi transmits over those microwave frequencies to bring information to the computer and send it back out.
How do you protect information if it’s just being broadcast like that? Well, a couple of things. While it is very similar, it’s not exactly like radio, where the information from the station is broadcast across the city, and all you have to do is tune it. The computer has to find the network first, and as previously stated, both physical objects and distances can keep Wi-Fi from reaching a compatible device. Distance is a solid defense. If a hacker is in the same building, however, how do you protect the network then? Assuming their device is within accessible distance of the network, can it intercept information sent over that network?
The second part is encryption: it doesn’t matter if the data’s intercepted if the interceptor can’t un-scramble it. Transmitting unencrypted data over unprotected Wi-Fi can get you into trouble – see all the warnings about using public Wi-Fi to do banking – but encrypting it stops most issues before they start. Hence, the rise of VPNs. However, encryption alone won’t stop intruders, so the third part is network security.
The next logical step for a hacker is to get into the protected network and then seek out the info they want, skipping the encryption step entirely. The network itself has to be protected as well! Network protection can be passwords, or firewalls, or anything that prevents closed data ports from being opened. An open port in data security just means something that will allow packets of data to go in or out. A website has open ports so you can access the information on it, for example. If a poorly configured application on a computer has an open port, it’s looking for information, and that can be used to get into the network, bypassing the encryption.
2.4 GHz vs 5 GHz
Some modems allow two frequencies of Wi-Fi, a faster channel, and a further channel. The 5GHz channel is what you’ll want to use for your video streaming. The frequency is higher, and that means information is transported to your device faster. The 2.4 GHz frequency is probably what the printer in the other room is best on. It’s better at penetrating solid objects than 5 GHz, and it has a larger range, but it’s also weaker. 2.4 GHz is also more prone to interference, because many things use that frequency. Microwaves, for example. If you’ve had issues with your Wi-Fi while the microwave is on, get that microwave checked! The odds are good it’s shielding is faulty.
Modem Vs. Router
What’s the difference? A router routes traffic from your network to the internet. It’s sometimes referred to as a WLAN (or a wireless local area network) device. Most houses have a router because of the number of network-enabled devices in a modern home. Printers are rarely connected by cable to a computer anymore, for example.
A modem, on the other hand, is designed to connect devices directly to the internet. Modems are hard-wired into cabled data lines, like telephone lines, so they’re less popular than they used to be. Routers have taken their spot in-home, as dial-up internet is basically non-existent.
Routers and Wi-Fi are here to stay, at least until the next big things comes out!