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What is a Wireless Router, and How Does it Work?

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 6/14/2009

Wireless routers form the beating heart of many networks, yet many people do not fully understand how they work. Here is a basic guide to what a wireless router is and how they work to create your wireless network connections.

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    Wireless routers are one of the most critical pieces of technology we have—connecting millions of people to the Internet each day. Chances are, you downloaded this article using a wireless router! Yet many people simply do not understand how this important technology works. Here's an overview of what a wireless router is and what it does for you.

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    What Is The Function Of A Wireless Router?

    Think of a wireless router as the beating heart of a network. The function of a wireless router, in brief, is to connect computers wirelessly to the Internet and/or other computers in your network. This proves very convenient (and very affordable) for quick and easy connections for many computers, from cafe hotspots to university libraries to cubicle desktops. These are popularly known as either Wi-Fi networks or hotspots.

    Wireless routers can also function as a hub for wired connections. In fact, a common set up in many houses is a mixed network: a wired connection to a main desktop computer, and then wireless connections for other laptops in the household, allowing for the best of both worlds.

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    Making The Connection

    Every wireless router requires some sort of physical Ethernet wired connection for itself, be it to the internet at large or to a specific network of computers or some mixture of the two. Typically, wireless routers use either a LAN (Local Area Network) or a WAN (Wider Area Network) connection.

    Wireless routers are outfitted with a little transmitter, through which all the wirelessly transmitted data passes through. This information is in turn sent and received by your own computer's NIC (Network Interface Card) or network adaptor. These can either be built into a laptop or connected externally as a dongle—but that's another subject entirely.

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    Packets & Radio Frequencies

    All this information is transmitted via the radio wave frequencies, turning all the data into binary—those 1s and 0s that make up the foundation of all digital data. These are then sent and received in packets of information, which include information regarding the sender and the receiver of data acccording to some sort of “802.11” standard. A particular wireless router will typically only use one particular 802.11 standard, though the corresponding wireless adaptors will usually be able to use several. Every packet is seen by the wireless router on its network, which can lead to both issues of slow network connections—and of security.

    A wireless router decides where the packets go using a configuration table. This allows the wireless router to decide where packets should be sent, the priority of individual connections, and more. The configuration table can be as complex, or as simple, as required by the particular demands of the network, once properly customized.

    The radio frequences used by wireless routers are either at 2.4 or 5GHz, which are both considerably higher than those used for other radio devices, such as cell phones and televisions. This is so that there is no obnoxious interference. For the technical nitty gritty, check out this article on radio frequences, 802.11 standards and wifi.

    As you can imagine, the further away the computer is from the wireless router, the less effective the connection will be. Similarily, it gets quite difficult to get the signal to transmit through walls, around corners, or any physical barrier.