What Do I Need for a Wi-Fi Connection?

By Michelle Mista

Commonly marketed as Wi-Fi, wireless Internet connections allow users to connect to the Internet with a compatible device wherever there happens to be a Wi-Fi access point. As of 2010, public Wi-Fi is available in places such as coffee shops, and some municipalities also offer public Wi-Fi within city borders.


The 802.11 wireless networking standard governs all wireless local area networking (LAN) connections. As of 2010, 802.11n is the newest standard, allowing connections of up to 11 Mbps with a range of up to 230 ft indoors. Other commonly used networking standards include 802.11b and 802.11g.


In order to connect to a Wi-Fi network, you need a computer with a compatible wireless networking card or a standalone, Wi-Fi capable device such as handheld game consoles like the PlayStation Portable. As of 2010, most wireless networking capabilities are built in to the computer's motherboard, but wireless USB keys are also quite popular. Newer wireless cards are backwards compatible with older wireless networks: ex. An 802.11n wireless network key can connect to a 802.11n, 802.11g or 802.11b network.


As of 2010, modern OS including Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X and variations of Linux have built-in wireless networking support. Wireless cards may also come with their own proprietary software and drivers that can be used in place of the native OS support. Standalone mobile devices that support Wi-Fi have their own firmware to detect and connect to wireless networks. Devices such as the Apple iPhone may also have third party apps to help find wireless networks.


Wireless network connections are identified by a Service Set Identifier (SSID). If a Wi-Fi connection is unsecured---also known as "open"---then a user can connect to it by choosing the SSID from his Wi-Fi capable computer or device. More secure public Wi-Fi connections may only allow access to a login website, after which the user is allowed more unrestricted access. Other wireless networks are often secured and require a password in order to connect.


If you cannot connect to a Wi-Fi network, make sure you are using a compatible wireless card. Older wireless cards such as 802.11b cannot connect to newer networks such as 802.11g. If you have trouble connecting to a secured Wi-Fi connection, check that your password is entered correctly. Some secured Wi-Fi networks may not broadcast their SSID. Most wireless software needs to be informed that it is a hidden network.