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How Does a Wireless Router Work?

written by: M.S. Smith•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 12/16/2009

The wireless router is a crucial piece of networking equipment you need for a home wireless network. But what is a wireless router, and how does it work?

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    Going Wireless

    Wireless Internet has become incredibly common. It is found not only in many homes, but also in coffee shops, restaurants, bars, airports, libraries, colleges, and other locations across the globe. In has become so common that in most large cities one can sit down with a laptop and find at least five or six different wireless networks instantly.

    One of the keys to this is the wireless router, a piece of technology which is responsible for most of the wireless networks one comes across is daily life. They're fairly easy to use, and not particularly expensive to buy. But how do they work?

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    Minus the Wireless...

    How does a wireless router work? Before we talk about the wireless portion of the wireless router, let's first cover what a router does.

    A router is a piece of networking equipment which is used to allow numerous computers to communicate together. Obviously, most computers have only on Ethernet jack for wired connections and have only one wireless antenna for receiving an sending wireless signals. Because of this, a network of computers can't communicate simply by speaking directly to each other. They need something in between to manage the traffic, and that is the job of the router.

    Routers also serve as an access point to the Internet, allowing multiple computers to share one Internet connection. They do this by intercepting information sent from computers to the router and then forward that information to the Internet. When that information returns, the router intercepts it again and sends it to the computer that sent it. Without this it would be impossible for multiple computers to use the same Internet connection because there would be no way to know which computer sent out what data.

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    Wireless Explained

    A wireless router uses this concept and adds wireless networking technology to it. Instead of using wires, signals are transmitted by wireless radio. Wireless radio is exactly what it sounds like - a form of radio which transmits data between computers. These wireless signals are sent from the PCs connected to the wireless router, which then sends those signals off to the Internet just as if the connection was wired. When the information returns, the router checks to see which computer it is meant for and then forwards it to that computer.

    While the term wireless router most specifically refers to a device which computers can connect to via wireless networking and use to forward data to the Internet, virtually all wireless routers are also standard routers capable of forwarding information via Ethernet cables strung between computers and the router.

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    What are wireless routers? Because a wireless router uses a form of radio for communication, there are limitations to what it is capable of. Just like any other radio antenna there are restrictions to the distance a computer and wireless router can be separated and still communicate. This can be reduced by factors like obstacles and interference from other devices. If you have a room in the house which seems to be uncooperative with your FM radio, it will probably also cause problems with a wireless network.

    Privacy is also a concern. The wireless signals sent out by a wireless router are effectively sent everywhere, in all directions, and can be intercepted at any time. This is why there are encryption protocols that can be used to prevent others from intercepting data. However, the public wireless networks found in coffee shops and restaurants are unsecured and therefor can be vulnerable.

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    Additional reading

    If you're looking to make a wireless network, you'll probably want to read our top recommendations for wireless routers. You'll also want to read our recommendations for wireless cards if you don't already have one in your computer.

    If you have a wireless router and want to use it, I suggest reading our guide to setting up a wireless network. It covers Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7.