What is wifi?


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What is wifi?

Wifi (also referred to as wireless) is the abbreviation of wireless fidelity. It's a radio technology that allows computers and many other devices to communicate with each other without needing to be plugged into a wired network.

How does wifi work?

A wifi  network is made up of a wifi-enabled router or wireless access point and one or more computers or devices. Your router acts as the central 'exchange' for all information on your network and between your network and the internet. It takes this information and translates it into a radio signal which is then transmitted to wifi-capable devices and computers.

Your wifi  router transmits at a frequency of 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz and across one of several channels per frequency. This gives you the flexibility to find a niche in the radio waves where your wifi networks won't clash with your neighbours'.

What is the difference between wifi and broadband?

Wifi access is often thought of as the same thing as broadband access, but your wifi and broadband are different links in the chain that connects your devices to the internet.

Your wifi connection is the most common way to link your computers and devices to your router. The other way is via an ethernet cable. The connection between your router and your computers, TV, phones and other devices is called your Local Area Network (LAN).

Your router then provides a connection to your broadband provider and then on to the internet. This is called your Wide Area Network (WAN) connection. The LAN works independently to your WAN connection with the router acting as a bridge between the two.

This means it's possible for computers on your local network to communicate with each other and have no connection to the internet.

If you are experiencing problems connecting to the internet, you should check your LAN and WAN connections to work out where the problem might be.

Running the Chorus Speed Test is a quick and easy way to check the connection between your router and your broadband provider.

Discover moreLearn how to run an internet speed test

Wifi protocols and versions

Wifi really refers to a protocol, or a set of rules, for how information can be sent across a radio network. Manufacturers use this protocol to ensure the computers and network devices they build are compatible with each other and data is transmitted efficiently and securely.

The protocol is called 802.11 and since 1997 has been upgraded several times. Each new revision gets a new letter or combination of letters like 802.11a, 802.11b and 802.11g. It've not very clear what these technical names say about Wi-Fi quality. Is 802.11n faster and better than 802.11ac (nope)? So to make life easier for people buying wifi products, the Wi-Fi Alliance agreed to use a simpler scheme to talk about wifi generations:

  • Wifi (0) - 802.11 (1997)
  • Wifi 1 - 802.11b (1999)
  • Wifi 2 - 802.11a (1999)
  • Wifi 3 - 802.11g (2003)
  • Wifi 4 - 802.11n (2009)
  • Wifi 5 - 802.11ac (2014)
  • Wifi 6 - 802.11ax (2019)

To get the best home wifi experience choose a router that supports a modern wifi protocol. Right now, that means Wifi 5 and Wifi 6.

How fast is wifi?

Older wifi networks (wifi 1-3) have a maximum information transfer speed of between 11 and 54 Mbps. Wifi 4 can boast speeds up to 450 Mbps, while the latest version (wifi 5), supports transfers up to 1.3 Gbps. When wifi 6 routers become common, 10 Gbps is expected to become the top benchmark speed.

These figures sound impressive, but it's important to remember these are theoretical maximums. The actual speed you get from your home wifi network will vary considerably depending on a range of factors, including:

  • the number of people using your wifi
  • how far you are from your wifi router
  • how old your device or router is
  • obstacles (walls and furniture) between you and your wifi router
  • interference from household appliances or your neighbours' wifi network 

Remember, data travels many times faster over wires than over wifi, so wherever possible connect your data-hungry devices like internet-capable stereo receivers, game consoles and TVs to your router using an ethernet cable. You'll reduce competition for your wifi signal and improve your overall wireless performance.

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