How Does WiFi Work?

The Wi-Fi wireless network standard allows different kinds of computing devices -- smartphones, laptops and more -- to share high-speed data connections to the Internet and other resources. A technology that seems almost like magic, Wi-Fi lets computers connect to essential data services automatically and securely with minimal fuss and maximum convenience.

Wireless internet router
Wi-Fi frees you from the limitations of data cables
credit: scanrail/iStock/Getty Images

Radio Signals

Wi-Fi sends data invisibly through the air via radio waves operating at dedicated frequencies to avoid interference with radios, baby monitors and other devices. Essential to any Wi-Fi setup is a wireless router, a device with an antenna that serves as a digital hub, shuttling data between your Wi-Fi device and the Internet. Inside each device is a radio circuit and antenna that converts data to radio signals and vice-versa, sending and receiving information at high speeds to the router.

Speed and Distance

Wi-Fi range is best in wide-open interior spaces and is somewhat more limited with furniture, walls and metal objects blocking the signal. Under the best conditions, Wi-Fi reaches up to 230 feet and carries data at speeds approaching 150 Mbps. This is generally enough to cover most homes and small businesses with a single router.

Pros and Cons

A main benefit of Wi-Fi is convenience -- after a brief setup, most devices connect to the network automatically. For example, when you go to work, your smartphone finds the office Wi-Fi network; when you arrive home, the phone finds the wireless network there. This happens without any effort on your part. A disadvantage is the limited range of Wi-Fi networks -- much more than 200 feet from the router, the signal becomes too weak to be useful and your device will disconnect from the network. Also, setting up a network takes some time and patience.

Getting Connected

To connect to a Wi-Fi network for the first time, open the wireless network driver program on your PC or the Settings app on your mobile device. The program or app will display a list of Service Set Identifiers (SSIDs) or Wi-Fi network names. Select the name of the network to which you want to connect. The program will prompt you for a password, if the network is secured, which is necessary for connecting to the network. The computer or device will then connect to the network and you’re ready to use the Internet. You typically need to do this only once; the computer remembers all the networks you use and reconnects automatically whenever you’re in Wi-Fi range.

Wi-Fi Tips

Many mobile devices give you the choice of having Wi-Fi enabled or not; under most circumstances you'll want it turned on. If Wi-Fi is not available, turning it off saves battery power. However, when your device is on Wi-Fi it's not using cellular data on your 3G/4G data plan, saving you money.

When you set up a home Wi-Fi network select WPA2 security, not WEP, which is weaker and more easily broken into.

Place your wireless router in a location central to the building for even Wi-Fi coverage throughout the home or office.