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How does Wi-Fi Work?

Internet speed test on phone

Nearly every home in America has a Wi-Fi system to bring an internet connection to the devices in the home, but how does it work? It seems like magic since there is no visible communication system, and sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. That inconsistency with vague troubleshooting steps has caused many clients to contact us to help make their Wi-Fi system robust and reliable.

The basic goal of Wi-Fi is to wirelessly connect devices to the internet. Before, every device had to have a cable connection to the home’s router to get a signal. Wi-Fi allows many devices to be added to the network without running cables everywhere.

But you knew that.

Wi-Fi works by broadcasting light waves from a source device (router, mesh node, etc.) out into your home. As the light waves travel through your room, pass through walls, bounce off surfaces, and navigate obstacles, your devices receive those waves and recognize it as a Wi-Fi signal. Your devices will send a signal BACK to the source device, indicating to the source that “yes, we received your light waves, here are our waves, let’s keep this thing going” and both devices will establish a connection with each other.

Cellular and Wi-Fi symbols

Even though these are light waves, you can’t see them. Like any other wave, Wi-Fi waves have a specific frequency that differentiate them from other light. Light that we can see (the visible spectrum) is between 4,000,000 and 8,000,000 GHz, but the light from Wi-Fi is only between 2 and 6 GHz, making them invisible to us. That’s why sometimes you may see 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, or even 6 GHz labels on your Wi-Fi systems: these are the frequencies of the Wi-Fi broadcast.

Fun fact: Wi-Fi waves are similar to the frequency of microwaves! Don’t worry, they won’t cook you. Microwaves use much more power into a highly focused area.

What causes a Wi-Fi connection to fail? Of course, there are many factors, but the basic reasons why Wi-Fi connections may not work are interference, losing connection to the internet to the home, and power.

Interference is the most common way for Wi-Fi to be hindered. Every time the light wave hits an obstacle, it loses some of its momentum. As the wave continuous to hit obstacles (walls, furniture, floors, people), it can reduce the signal so much that the receiving device can’t detect it properly. Walls and floors are the most difficult to pass through, since there are many layers (drywall, framing, insulation, etc.). Other sources of interference, like other Wi-Fi signals and even home appliances can hinder the performance of your Wi-Fi.

As many homeowners have experienced, an internet outage in the area can cause a Wi-Fi connection to fail. It’s important to note here that the Wi-Fi source device (router, etc.) is still broadcasting a signal to the devices in the home, so the devices may show “connected, no internet” to indicate the problem lies with the connection to the house. If the Wi-Fi source doesn’t have internet, then no device gets internet!

Finally, power is a factor when picking a Wi-Fi system. Range and power are closely linked: the more power you have, the more range you typically get. You may have noticed how some huge routers can cover a whole home, but smaller routers in the same location can’t quite do it. There are again a lot of factors here, but high broadcasting power of a source device can push a signal through obstacles and over long distances better than a weaker source device.

There are so many factors to consider when designing a Wi-Fi system for a home, that no one solution will work for every home. We always take a close look at all the spaces in the home that need Wi-Fi service and pick a system that will match the home based on the floorplan, number of devices, and much more.

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