What Is WiFi?
A wireless network uses radio waves, just like cell phones, televisions and radios do. In fact, communication across a wireless network is a lot like two-way radio communication. Here's what happens:
1. A computer's wireless adapter translates data into a radio signal and transmits it using an antenna.
2. A wireless router receives the signal and decodes it. The router sends the information to the Internet using a physical, wired Ethernet connection.
The process also works in reverse, with the router receiving information from the Internet, translating it into a radio signal and sending it to the computer's wireless adapter.
The radios used for WiFi communication are very similar to the radios used for walkie-talkies, cell phones and other devices. They can transmit and receive radio waves, and they can convert 1s and 0s into radio waves and convert the radio waves back into 1s and 0s. But WiFi radios have a few notable differences from other radios:
* They transmit at frequencies of 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. This frequency is considerably higher than the frequencies used for cell phones, walkie-talkies and televisions. The higher frequency allows the signal to carry more data.
* They use 802.11 networking standards, which come in several flavors:
* 802.11a transmits at 5 GHz and can move up to 54 megabits of data per second. It also uses orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), a more efficient coding technique that splits that radio signal into several sub-signals before they reach a receiver. This greatly reduces interference.
* 802.11b is the slowest and least expensive standard. For a while, its cost made it popular, but now it's becoming less common as faster standards become less expensive. 802.11b transmits in the 2.4 GHz frequency band of the radio spectrum. It can handle up to 11 megabits of data per second, and it uses complementary code keying (CCK) modulation to improve speeds.
* 802.11g transmits at 2.4 GHz like 802.11b, but it's a lot faster -- it can handle up to 54 megabits of data per second. 802.11g is faster because it uses the same OFDM coding as 802.11a.
* 802.11n is the newest standard that is widely available. This standard significantly improves speed and range. For instance, although 802.11g theoretically moves 54 megabits of data per second, it only achieves real-world speeds of about 24 megabits of data per second because of network congestion. 802.11n, however, reportedly can achieve speeds as high as 140 megabits per second. The standard is currently in draft form -- the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) plans to formally ratify 802.11n by the end of 2009.
* Other 802.11 standards focus on specific applications of wireless networks, like wide area networks (WANs) inside vehicles or technology that lets you move from one wireless network to another seamlessly.
* WiFi radios can transmit on any of three frequency bands. Or, they can "frequency hop" rapidly between the different bands. Frequency hopping helps reduce interference and lets multiple devices use the same wireless connection simultaneously.
As long as they all have wireless adapters, several devices can use one router to connect to the Internet. This connection is convenient, virtually invisible and fairly reliable; however, if the router fails or if too many people try to use high-bandwidth applications at the same time, users can experience interference or lose their connections.
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