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WiFi 101: Understanding how WiFi works
September 21, 2020
What does a radio have to do with surfing the web? Everything, when you’re using WiFi! Did you know your wireless router uses the same technology as an old-fashioned radio? Well, the technology may be quite a bit more advanced, but it operates on the same basic concept: transmitting data over the air using radio waves.
What does WiFi stand for?
WiFi, sometimes written as Wi-Fi or wi-fi, is often mistakenly thought to stand for “wireless fidelity,” but it doesn’t — not exactly. The term was invented in 1999 by a branding company to make the first standardized wireless protocol (IEEE 802.11) sound a lot cooler. It was, however, a direct pun on the audio term “hi-fi” (high fidelity), which caused the confusion.
A wireless network can also be referred to as WLAN, which stands for “wireless local area network.”
How WiFi works
An internet provider brings your internet connection to your home over a network of wires, which can be either copper, as in DSL lines, or fiber-optic cables used in fiber internet. Some services also use the same coaxial cable you might use for cable TV. The outside network connects to a jack in your home, and your modem then connects to that through an Ethernet cord.
If you didn’t have WiFi, you would then have to connect every internet device you own to the back of your modem using multiple Ethernet cables. Clearly, no one has enough ports on their modem or yards of cords to hook up all those devices we use today!
This is where wireless comes in. Your internet signal is broadcasted via radio waves from a router’s antenna to any wireless device in range that can access that network. Most modems today have the router built right in, so you only need one unit to fill both functions: the modem to bring in the connection, and the router to transmit it wirelessly throughout your home.
The way any radio setup works, you need a sending device and receiving device set to the same frequency to share data over radio waves. These waves travel at certain frequencies, so we have car radios that receive AM and FM signals, microwaves and other appliances that emit radio waves, and WiFi-enabled devices, all operating at slightly different frequencies. There can be some interference if the frequencies are too similar. For instance, smart home hub systems such as Zigbee and Z-Wave, as well as Bluetooth devices, tend to operate at frequencies similar to wireless networks, which is why many devices and networks have the option of selecting a different frequency range, to avoid signal interference.
For WiFi, the frequencies used are 2.4 Gigahertz (GHz) and 5 GHz. That means those waves are traveling through the air at a rate of billions (Gigahertz) of waves per second. Amazing! Meanwhile, radio frequencies you listen to in your car travel at a speed of thousands (Kilohertz) or millions (Megahertz) of waves per second.
Using WiFi-connected devices
The good news is that, as with most advanced technologies, using WiFi is far easier than understanding how it works. Getting connected to a wireless network is something anyone can do, as long as you have a working router, know your network name and password, and know how to access the wireless setup on each of your devices. Laptops, tablets, and smartphones often use similar icons and steps for connecting to WiFi, so once you know how to do it on one device, the rest are likely to be a breeze.
When it comes to security, WiFi is quite different from listening to the radio. Our personal networks aren’t meant to be accessed by everyone. For one, having unwanted visitors sharing your connection can slow it down considerably. What’s more, those other users could potentially access personal information through your wireless network, so it really can present a risk to your security as well as performance.
The router’s wireless settings allow you to set up your WiFi network as secured or unsecured. A secured WiFi connection is password-protected, while an unsecured one allows anyone to connect to it freely without having a password or additional information. You see unsecured connections in some public areas like coffee shops, libraries, schools, or airports. But increasingly, even public venues protect their networks with a WiFi password to prevent unauthorized use and to keep their customers’ information secure.
CenturyLink modems — and most modems that you lease or purchase from an internet provider — are set up with wireless security turned ON by default. This means that when you try to connect your device to the wireless network, you'll be prompted to provide a network password.
Network name (SSID)
A network name identifies the wireless network. You often see the network name referred to as the SSID, which stands for “service set identifier.” Devices come preconfigured with generic network names, which can be made up of 32 letters and/or numbers. The easiest way to find the default name of your home wireless network is to look at the sticker on the bottom of your modem. If you don't see a sticker, you can find your network name by signing into the modem’s settings portal.
The network password, also known as your WiFi password, protects the network from being accessed by unauthorized users. You'll frequently see this referred to as a security key or passphrase.
As with the network name, devices are assigned default passwords when they're manufactured. And just as with the SSID, you can find your device's default password on the sticker or in the modem’s settings interface.
Customizing your network name and password
Neither the SSID nor the default password tend to be all that memorable. And they aren’t as secure as you’d like, because hackers have been known to get ahold of login data set by the manufacturer. So, for both convenience and security reasons, it’s a good idea to create your own network name and secure password when you first set up your modem. And going forward, you should change your WiFi password on a regular basis to maximize the security of your home network.
One thing to clear up is the difference between your modem’s administrative login and your WiFi network login. The admin username and password give you access to the modem settings interface through a browser, while the network name (SSID) and (security key) password allow you to access your wireless network.
Tip: If you set up a unique password and forget it, you will need to use the modem's RESET button to restore your device's factory settings and return it to its original password. Just be aware that pressing the reset button also resets any other custom data or settings you may have changed. Read about the modem reset button before using it.
When you try to connect any device to a wireless network, the device pops up a list of all the wireless networks it finds in the area. Depending on where you are and how many households or businesses are near you, you may see a long list of network names or only a few.
If you've created a unique name for your network, you should recognize it immediately. If you kept the factory default name, then you’ll need to check your modem label or settings to see what your device's network name is.
Wireless networks are typically listed in order of signal strength, so the networks closest to you, including your own, should show up at the top of the list. In the network list, secured networks are usually indicated by a padlock icon. These require a password to connect.
Getting everything connected
If you understand these basics, you're about 75% of the way to being a proficient WiFi user! The next step is to get all your devices connected and to learn how to use the “best wireless channel” to get the strongest signal to optimize your home network.
This blog is provided for informational purposes only and may require additional research and substantiation by the end user. In addition, the information is provided "as is" without any warranty or condition of any kind, either express or implied. Use of this information is at the end user's own risk. CenturyLink does not warrant that the information will meet the end user's requirements or that the implementation or usage of this information will result in the desired outcome of the end user. Third party names are the properties of their respective owners.