Is Wi-Fi Sci-Fi or Hi-Fi?

Everything you never wanted to know about wireless networking!

You’ve probably heard about Wi-Fi; you’ve probably used it, but what, exactly is it?

Just as a cellphone is nothing more than a very elaborate two-way radio, Wi-Fi is just two-way radio as well. Of course, that’s an extremely simplistic explanation, but it’s a start.

Many of us, if we’re old enough, got our internet start with “dial-up.” The full name of dial-up is dial-up networking. Networking, in the technology sense, is simply connecting two or more devices together. Businesses, and now many homes, connect all their computers together so they can share resources such as printers, and to coordinate such things as inventory management and sales records.

The internet is simply the biggest network on Earth. Your modem and router do the job of connecting your small home network (sometimes referred to as the LAN, or Local Area Network) to the internet (WAN, or Wide Area Network, although WANs are also sometimes city-wide or region-wide, such as a city’s police or fire department network).

Your modem sorts out the data coming in through your cable, phone, or satellite line and sends the sorted data to the router. The router’s job is (Surprise!) to route data to all the devices on the network, preventing data collisions and other nastiness on the information superhighway.

Data can come through wires, such as that fat “Cat 5” cable connecting desktop computers to routers, or over the air via radio signal. Wi-Fi is that radio signal. Most home routers have Wi-Fi built in, and all tablets, late model laptops, and many cellphones also have Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi typically has a range of only a few hundred feet, assuming nothing substantial is in the way of the signal. Since it is radio, it is broadcast and can be intercepted by others, so it is never as secure or reliable as wired networking.

For reasonable security, you must have a password on your wireless network. You say you have nothing to hide? You never do anything private on the internet? I don’t believe you. But, even if that were true, suppose someone out in the street logs onto your network and starts downloading child porn. Everything done on the internet is traceable through the unique identifier, called an IP (Internet Protocol) address, that every connection has.

And guess what? When the cops trace those downloads, they will trace them to your router, and they will come looking for you. You can only stop this from happening by using the newest Wi-Fi security protocol, called WPA2, and setting a long, complex password on the network. Fortunately, the routers that come from the internet providers (ISPs) usually have that security enabled by default.

If you need greater range for your Wi-Fi, there are a plethora of range extenders on the market that will act as repeaters; they receive the signal and rebroadcast it so you get fewer dead spots. There are also special antennas that can increase range, especially if you just need extra range in one direction. You can even make your own out of a Pringles can, or a beer can! The beer can is simpler; you can make one in a few minutes with just a pair of scissors and/or a box cutter.

Be aware, though, that if you use such a device to access a network that you’re not authorized to use, you are committing a crime. A few areas of the country even have laws against just possessing such a homemade antenna. Be careful!

For even more empowering technology info, read my new book, “Deciphering the 21st Century,” Available now!

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