written by: Bruce Tyson•edited by: Simon Hill•updated: 3/17/2010
How does a wireless router work? Wireless networks work much in the same way as cordless phones, using radio waves to connect a remote to a base device. When the connection is in place, the radio signal takes the place of a network cable, sending data packets to a variety of destinations.
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What is Wi-Fi?
The term Wi-Fi has been accepted into our vernacular as being synonymous with wireless networking, although it technically refers to wireless devices certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance. Certified Wi-Fi devices carry the Wi-Fi logo, signifying that the alliance has tested the product and found it to meet its specifications. For practical purposes, however, when someone asks how Wi-Fi routers work, they are probably talking about a wireless router regardless of whether or not it is certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance.
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What is the purpose of Wi-Fi?
Wi-Fi is intended to provide the benefits of networked computers and compatible devices without the use of wires. While Wi-Fi connections are generally slower than wired connections, the trade-off on speed is generally accepted as being worth it for the convenience of mobility. Wi-Fi is also a convenient solution to situations where a cabled connection is not feasible or accessible.
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Wi-Fi Routers and Access Points
A wireless router is a network router with a built-in access point. Its job, like any other router is to exchange data between a local area network and the Internet. Sometimes standalone wireless access points are used that are connected to a standard router port on one end and a wireless transceiver on the other. In either configuration, the transceiver sends and receives data via one or more antennae once a radio connection is established with a wireless device.
For a device to connect to a wireless network, a wireless network adapter is required. Most new laptop computers have these built in, while desktop computers can use USB adapters or expansion cards to connect.
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Places where Wi-Fi is in operation are often called hot spots, especially when they are designed for public access. People with a wireless device such as a notebook computer can connect to the network and access the Internet through the hotspot. Many hotspots are intended for authorized users such as hotel guests, coffee shop customers, or library patrons. In this case, authentication is required before you can access the network. Most of the time the security key that is needed is found inside the establishment. This prevents unauthorized use from people who might be parked outside.
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When a wireless network is set up, a client device connects with the router or access point using a radio signal. A simple way to explain wireless router operation is to compare it to a traffic cop. As part of security, the router decides which network devices are allowed to enter the network, much like a cop has control of an intersection. Once data is allowed to enter, the router determines where it should go, much as a cop might direct you left, right or straight ahead. That way data meant for a local device is not sent to the Internet and data for the Internet is not sent to your printer or another local networked device.