What is Wi-Fi and How Does it Work? Let’s Explore That!

couple using computer outside

What is invisible but critical to hundreds of millions of Americans? If you guessed Wi-Fi, good job! Let’s take a step back and really look at this marvel that makes our jobs, communication, and entertainment possible. What is Wi-Fi, how does it work, and even more importantly, where is it headed? Let’s explore that by laying out the key terms, take a look ahead to the next generation of Wi-Fi, and find out how this next step will free the internet from our homes and offices and bring it fully into the great outdoors.

Broadband, Wi-Fi, and spectrum

To start, let’s get our terms straight. Broadband is the technology that brings the internet to your modem. Capable of traveling at blazing fast speeds and over long distances, broadband has the advantage of being always on. From there, Wi-Fi takes the signal from a modem to connected devices on your network.

For Wi-Fi to do its work, it travels over radio waves. Radio waves, in turn, are part of a much larger electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. This spectrum is divided into a number of frequency bands in order to allocate it for different uses. Last fall, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates spectrum, opened part of the 5.9 GHz band for unlicensed indoor use. Unlicensed means that the spectrum is free to use by anyone, and is not controlled by any business or other entity. This will be a boon for consumers, with the extra space helping to prevent congestion due to a rapidly increasing number of connected devices and jumps in technology uses.

Wi-Fi 6: a HUGE upgrade

At the same time that the FCC is opening up more spectrum for Wi-Fi, another technological innovation is set to allow it to make another leap forward: Wi-Fi 6. Not to be confused with the 6Ghz band of the spectrum (also opened by the FCC for internet use in 2020) Wi-Fi 6 is, rather, an upgrade on existing technology – a huge upgrade. In short, it’s a new version of Wi-Fi, just like a new version of an operating system you might download on your phone or PC.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of what makes Wi-Fi 6 different (and spare you from a mouthful of terms like MU-MIMO, OFDMA, and OBSS), let’s skip straight to the advantages. First, Wi-Fi 6 will be faster, with a maximum speed of 9.6 Gpbs instead of 3.5 Gbps with Wi-Fi 5. Second, it will have up to 75% less latency, which is crucial for keeping uploads, games, and streaming services running smoothly. Third, it will bring wired and wireless signals closer to “parity,” meaning you won’t have to plug an Ethernet cable into your modem for especially important work. Finally, it promises to increase security and battery life. All in all, not a bad deal.

Outdoor Wi-Fi: the next frontier 

The combination of these two innovations – increased spectrum and Wi-Fi 6 – has the ability to bring internet beyond the four walls of indoor use and make it fully functional in the great outdoors. The benefits of this would be multiple. For schools and universities, it provides students and faculty access to resources when buildings are closed, helps respect ongoing distancing guidelines, and allows campus police and services staff to better fulfill their duties. For stadiums and other venues, it will prevent saturation, allowing people to share experiences, access alerts and information about the event, and communicate with each other if they get separated. For businesses, it will allow seamless connectivity between indoor and outdoor spaces, something that is especially important for farmers, construction firms, transport companies, and more, whose livelihood depends on the outdoors.

For this potential to be fully reached, however, the FCC needs to amplify its ruling by opening the 5.9 GHz band for indoor use and extending it to outdoor use and mobile Wi-Fi operations as well. This common-sense solution would allow consumers to benefit without restraints from the increased spectrum, which would, in turn, multiply its effects on the economy.

The Future is…now?

With increased spectrum and Wi-Fi 6, the future of broadband is at our doorstep – but lawmakers need to keep up with the demand by providing the resources needed to create a truly supercharged, coast to coast Wi-Fi. To find out more about the importance of spectrum and how it powers our Wi-Fi connections, click here.