Wifi Network Basics

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No wifi, no joy.

In an earlier post, How Come My Thingie Only Works At Home, I explained why mobile devices need to be connected to a wifi network to do a lot of the stuff you might want them to do. In this post, I’m going to explain some wifi basics. Don’t worry, I’m not going to geek out on you and get all technical, but it can be helpful to know a thing or two about this stuff when you’re far from your home network and looking to connect.

How Does Wifi Work?

In the most basic terms, wifi works a lot like the radio. It sends signals back and forth between computers over the air waves, but at a much higher frequency than what’s used for radio, TV, walkie talkies and so on. It’s kind of cool when you think about it: that email you’re about to send from your iPad is going to travel through the air to the nearest wifi network, and from there it will be carried from server to server (sort of like an old-timey fire crew, passing buckets of water from man to man, down a line, to put out a fire) until it reaches the recipient’s computer.

Like radio waves, wifi signals get weaker as you move further and further away from the transmitter: you have to be ‘within range’ to access a given wifi network.

Unlike radio waves, wifi signals also get weaker as more and more people log on to a given wifi network, or as larger files are being sent back and forth across the network. With radio signals, it doesn’t matter how many people are listening or how loud the signal is sent out from the transmitter, those things won’t affect radio signal strength. This is because, unlike radio, wifi networks are sending data, not just sound waves. Also, wifi networks are sending that data in two directions: you can both send and receive data across a wifi network.

How Come Wifi Networks Get So Slow Sometimes?

Sort of like a water pipeline, there’s only so much capacity a given wifi network can handle and as the amount of “water” (or data) being sent through the “pipe” (or across the wifi network) increases, the pipe’s (or network’s)  ability to take on more water (or data) decreases, until eventually it can’t take on any more capacity at all. When you’re talking about a wifi network, reaching full capacity means that the connection slows down pretty severely for everyone who’s logged in, and no new users will be allowed to log in.

Streaming Netflix movies from a wifi hotspot is not a good idea.

This is why wifi networks in public places aren’t usually fast enough to handle streaming video, online multiplayer games, or anything else that requires sending a LOT of data across the network. With public wifi networks, like the free wifi hotspots you can find in Starbucks, airports, McDonalds and so on, there are usually a LOT of people logged in and every one of them is decreasing the network’s available capacity.

How Come I Can’t Find, Or Connect To, A Wifi Network When I’m Away From Home?

Most mobile devices can automatically detect, and list, all available wifi networks that are within range. You’ll find them listed on your device under the Wifi Settings menu, which is usually accessible through your device’s Settings panel. But as I explained in that other post, wifi networks are often password-protected. That means you can’t connect unless you know the password.

Public wifi hotspots will sometimes be “unsecured”, meaning that no password is required. Otherwise, the hotspot provider will usually have directions for how to connect posted somewhere in the location where the hotspot is, including the password.

How Come I Can’t Find, Or Connect To, A Wifi Network I KNOW Is There?

When someone sets up a wifi network, she can choose whether or not to make the network “discoverable”. If she does make it discoverable, it will show up on those wifi connection lists on any device that’s within range of the network. If she does not make it discoverable, it won’t show up.

In that case, you have to know both the name of the network and the password to connect. If you have both of them, you can use the “Add Network” function (again, check your device’s Wifi Settings menu for this) to manually enter the name and password.


And that’s pretty much all the typical consumer needs to know about wifi. See? That wasn’t so hard!


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