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What is Wifi? - Wifi Hardware Requirements

written by: •edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 3/4/2010

Wifi technology is one of the most critical in today's hi-tech world, and so it's important to know the hardware required to make that technology work. This article covers the broad hardware concepts involved, and then discusses the different types of hardware that have developed for wifi.

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    Step 1: Wired Network

    Before you can have your wifi network, you need a wired network of some sort in place. The wired network can consist of many things. It may connect to other devices, as well as to private networks and to the Internet. Residential wired networks tend to just be with whatever your local ISP (Internet Service Provider) gives you, be it DSL, cable, or other, but commercial networks in businesses can get much more complicated. Old dial-up networks are generally not fast enough to support wireless networks.

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    Step 2: Wireless Access Point

    To get information from the wired network to your wireless enabled device, your next step is to create some sort of wireless access point, or WAP. This is defined as any device that allows other wireless communication devices, including wi-fi-enabled devices like laptops, printers or cellphones, to connect to a wired network. This works by relaying data back and forth between the wired and the wireless network in the form of packets, which are then put together again by your computer to create the very webpage you're reading right now. Thus, WAPs act as a sort of wireless gateway into the wired networks.

    WAPs are managed by a device called a WLAN controller, which does automatic adjustments of power, authentication, channels, and other necessary features of wireless networks. This is all usually combined into a single specialized device called a wireless router. Wireless routers also come with the software to route and forward the data and pass it back and forth between the wired network and the wireless devices.

    Wireless routers by definition must have at least one port for a wired connection, though they typically have more so that other devices can access the wired network directly. The most common wired connection standard is Ethernet LAN.

    For more on wireless routers, check out the “What Is A Wireless Router?" article in this series.

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    Step 3: Wireless Adapter

    Now that you have the wireless network into place, you need to be able to connect to them with other devices. These devices thus need some sort of wireless adapter. Wireless adapters can take many forms:

    Before wireless access became an essential feature of everyday life in the hitech world, computers were not outfitted with built-in wireless cards, something we now often take for granted. For these computers, the primary method of accessing wireless networks was through the use of external wireless adapters that could plug into available USB ports on the computer, sometimes referred to as a “dongle." Later on, specialized PC cards were developed, along with specialized slots in which they can be placed internally yet still be easily removable. Such pieces of hardware could interface with the computer and provide for an Internet connection, once certain software was installed. While this was something of a hassle, it was better than having no wireless!

    Similarly, a wireless bridge may also be used to outfit devices previously only capable of wired connections so that they may work wirelessly within a certain standard. For instance, a wireless bridge for Bluetooth may be added to a printer.

    Today, however, most computers are built with internal wireless adapters. Many other devices in today's world also have wireless capability, from printers to cell phones to even some refrigerators, and wifi is the most popular standard to put on them.

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    Alternative Networks

    While the steps outlined above apply well to most typical networks, there are a few other alternative network types you may want to consider. For instance, for private networks, a wired connection is not necessarily needed and it may be better to transmit wirelessly between all the devices in the network. Here, only wireless network adapters are required. Other network layouts are possible!

    For information on how to make a wifi connection, check out another article in the series, How to connect to a wifi network. For more specifics on wireless cards, including the different types, check out the What is a wireless card? article.

What Is Wifi?

This series of articles explores various fundamental aspects of wifi technology, one of the most critical in our current hitech world. How does it work? What hardware and software does it use?
  1. What is Wifi? - How To Connect To Wifi
  2. What is Wifi? - Wifi Hardware Requirements
  3. What is Wifi? - What is a Wireless Card?
  4. What is Wifi? - How Wifi Routers Work at Home and in Business


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