What Is WiFi? Understanding Your Wireless Connection

We all use WiFi on a regular basis. It connects us to the Internet, to our jobs, and to each other. For the average person, however, the logistics of WiFi may get confusing. In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about WiFi, including how it works and the terms you should know.

What is WiFi?

WiFi mobile device signal

WiFi, short for Wireless Fidelity and technically called IEEE 802.11 after the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, is the wireless technology that connects devices to the Internet. Though they’re sometimes mixed as terms because of their interconnectivity, WiFi and Internet are separate things. WiFi is what connects you and your device to your Internet service. It allows you to access the Internet to browse and do anything else you’d normally do on a computer, phone, or Internet-connected mobile device.

How does WiFi work?

WiFi uses radio waves to transmit information from your device to a router. The radio waves measure in frequencies and vary based on the amount of data sent. The two primary frequencies—2.4 gigahertz and 5 gigahertz—are divided into multiple channels in order to prevent interference.

When a user accesses the Internet, their information request is translated into binary code. The frequencies travel across radio channels and received by the WiFi router with your connected device. The router converts the frequencies back into binary code, translates it into Internet traffic, and receives the data via an Internet cable.

That process continues until the user gets the information they requested—an article, a website, or whatever it may be. While the process may sound long and tedious, in actuality, it happens in a matter of seconds, which is why you aren’t sitting at your computer for three hours waiting for a webpage to load.

Types of WiFi connections

There are a number of different ways to access a wireless local area network and get Internet service.


A router is the most common way to access WiFi. WiFi routers are easy to set up and have high mobility within the router’s range, both of which are assets. However, make sure you use a router-modem combination device, which most routers on the market are, or purchase a modem separately. Though the devices work together, a router can't access the Internet without a modem.

Routers also have the ability to connect and use multiple devices at once. On the other hand, they have limited bandwidth and lose some speed with every new device added to the network. The potential for interference with the wireless signal from other electromagnetic devices is also greater. In some cases, routers also assign private IP addresses to devices and provide a public IP address for a WiFi router's network, which can be viewed on the What's My IP homepage.

Friends using a mobile hotspot WiFi connection

Mobile hotspot

Though they're not yet commonplace, the popularity of mobile hotspots is increasing. Most smartphones have the ability to act as mobile hotspots. They don’t function as a permanent hotspot, but they work temporarily.

Keep in mind that you may have to pay extra for data rates and they can drain your cellphone’s battery life. Also make sure that you secure your WiFi network in case others attempt to access it; it's better than using free WiFi in public places like coffee shops or airports, but your mobile hotspot can still be vulnerable.

4G LTE home Internet

4G LTE home Internet has high-speed Internet connections delivered over cellphone towers and mobile networks with average download speeds of around 25 mbps. They offer less latency and more data than a satellite. They offer better speed and reliability than other forms of wireless networks, but the availability is sometimes limited or unpredictable. Additionally, some 4G LTE home Internet packages cost for service and setup.

5G home Internet

5G home Internet is becoming more widely available and widely used. It utilizes radio frequencies over a wireless network, giving it greater speed and capacity than 4G LTE home Internet in addition to less latency. While it’s still not commonplace yet, future towers placed within a few miles of each other will result in great reliability.

WiFi terms to know

There are a few key terms that may come up when talking or reading about WiFi. Knowing what they are helps you understand how your WiFi works or if it’s experiencing issues.


Bandwidth is the maximum amount of data transmitted over an Internet connection in a certain amount of time. It’s sometimes mistaken for Internet speed. But bandwidth has no bearing on download speeds. Rather, it's the volume of information that can go across a connection in megabits per second (Mbps).

The amount of bandwidth you’ll need depends on how many people are regularly on your WiFi and the kinds of activities you use it for. Evaluate the FCC’s broadband speed guide to determine the WiFi that best fits your needs.

An image of WiFi high speed Internet


As the goal is to keep packets on track for delivery in order to improve network performance, monitoring network throughput is important. Throughput is ultimately measured in bits per second (bps), but it is also measured in data packets per second.

Speed is simply a measure of response time for a network. Bandwidth, packet loss, and latency all impact speed. Therefore, having “high-speed Internet” isn’t as simple as some companies advertise it to be.


Latency is the response time for information getting from its source to you. Users also refer to latency as ping rate.

This is the amount of lag users experience while waiting for their connection to load. A low latency, or low ping rate, is good; a high latency, or high ping rate, isn’t. Test your ping rate to know how well your WiFi performs.


Throughput is the amount of data that can be sent and received within a specific timeframe. It measures the rate at which messages, or packets, successfully get to their destination. The average throughput informs users how many packets arrive.

How to secure WiFi connections

Once you understand how your WiFi connection works, make sure you take the proper steps to securing it.

  • Use a firewall. Set up a firewall on your router to defend against malware, viruses, and other unwanted attacks.
  • Keep your network software up-to-date. Your router's security is your base defense for your whole network. Make sure you don't let software updates go by the wayside, as this makes your system vulnerable.
  • Create a MAC address list. You can also create a list of your devices' MAC addresses, which ensures that only devices you know and use can access your network.

Keeping your WiFi connection secure helps protect yourself, your devices, and your information.

Frequently asked questions about WiFi

What is WiFi 6?

WiFi 6 is the most updated WiFi standard. It works to increase speed and usability by more effectively prioritizing traffic across channels within a wireless router. This leads to better connections, faster download speeds, and a more enjoyable online experience. The purpose of building WiFi version 6 is to improve connection communication when more devices are simultaneously using the WiFi 6 router.

What is the difference between Internet and WiFi?

Most often, these terms become used interchangeably, the difference with WiFi vs Internet comes down to connection and reach. A wireless network connects devices to the Internet. But the Internet doesn't connect devices so much as it just exists as a global web of networks. Devices can communicate across the Internet, but you need WiFi to connect wirelessly to the Internet in the first place.

While the Internet is worldwide (hence the "world wide web" abbreviation that comes before every website) WiFi networks are local, connecting a few devices to each other and to the Internet. It's possible for users to become connected to WiFi and not the Internet if their WiFi is not working properly or if a webpage is down. However, in some cases, users can't connect to their WiFi. This then subsequently means they can't connect to the Internet.

It may be beneficial for users to troubleshoot their WiFi in order to boost their Internet connection; to do so, reset the router or clear the device cache.

Can you have WiFi without Internet?

Yes, it's possible to have a WiFi connection without being able to connect to the Internet. While your wireless router is the driving force behind your Internet connection, it's possible that your Internet service provider (ISP) is having issues with the Internet, whether it be dial-up, DSL, or fiber optic.

Your WiFi could be completely usable and experiencing no issues. However, your Internet connection will be nonexistent. In some instances, your router is the problem; in that case, try resetting your router to restore the connection. You can also try various methods for extending your WiFi connection if you find that your router isn't reaching as far as you need.

What does WiFi stand for?

The term WiFi stands for Wireless Fidelity.

How does WiFi work with cell phones?

Cell phones and smartphones connect to cell phone towers and networks for most of their function. However, many also have the option for users to take advantage of local WiFi networks. On a smartphone, users can have WiFi access and cellular network access simultaneously.

This usually provides faster speeds and a better online experience. Furthermore, in cell network dead zones where you can't get service, users are able to connect to WiFi hotspots and share WiFi passwords with other phone users.  This is beneficial to keep using their devices to make phone calls, text, use apps, and more.

WiFi also works with phones to enable WiFi calling. Users can use apps like Telegram or WhatsApp to do voice calls or send messages using their same phone numbers.

They don't need cell service, which is great for anyone in a dead zone or traveling abroad. Ultimately, WiFi works much in the same way a cell network does for phones. It connects you to the Internet and others.