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Wi-Fi: What Is It, How Does It Work and How Did It Begin?

Updated on September 20, 2018

Wi-Fi is a Dutch invention. The founders of wireless networks are entrepreneur Cees Links and engineer Vic Hayes. These Dutch played a big part in the develoment of the Wi-Fi network as we know it nowadays. At the end of the eighties, the idea for a wireless network that connected computers was born. Less than 10 years later, the standard for this kind of networks existed: Wi-Fi or WLAN. What is Wi-Fi, how does it work and how have we ever been able to use the internet without a wireless network?


What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a technology that gives you wireless access to the internet. Before the invention of Wi-Fi, you could only access the internet through a cable. Wi-Fi uses radio waves. This technology makes it possible to receive and send data everywhere completely wireless.

The invention of wireless networks

You probably use wireless networks daily (maybe even right now, reading this article) but did you know that Wi-Fi is an invention in which the Dutch played a large part? The Dutch entrepreneur Cees Links invented the technology to connect computers through a wireless connection in 1988. Another Dutch, Vic Hayes, was chairman of the IEEE 802.11 workgroup that made the first Wi-Fi netwerk a reality in the late nineties.

Cees Links: idea for a wireless network

Entrepreneur Cees Links came with the idea to invent a wireless network to connect computers with each other. In the years that came after, he started developing products to make this idea come true. He even met with Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, to sell his idea and products.

Vic Hayes, known as the founding father of Wi-Fi

Engineer Vic Hayes is seen by many as the founding father of the wireless network technolgy Wi-Fi. He was chairman of the 802.11 workgroup for Wireless Local Area Networks of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). This workgroup had the task to develop a standard for all wireless networks, because the already existing networks weren't able to communicate with each other.

Not only Dutch glory

Ofcourse, the Dutch didn't invent Wi-Fi all on their own. Many researchers, technicians and developers have been involved in the inventing of wireless networks. But because of the innovative and leading roles that Cees Links and Vic Hayes played during the realization of the project, many see them as the main inventors.

What does the abbreviation Wi-Fi mean?

Wi-Fi is an abbreviation of wireless fidelity. This name is derived from the concept High Fidelity or Hi-Fi, which is a concept that indicates a very high sound quality and is mostly used in the sound industry. Hi-Fi means that the sound of a speaker is clear and it's hard to tell apart from real life sound.

At first, Wi-Fi was known as IEEE 802.11b, but this name was quite hard to remember. That's why nowadays, we also call it Wi-Fi or WLAN, which is an abbreviation of Wireless Local Area Network.

How does Wi-Fi work?

In order for Wi-Fi to work, you need a router and an access point. The access point is connected to the internet in the old fashioned way with a cable. This device sends radio waves to your computer, laptop, smartphone, game console or tablet with its antennas. These devices contain a chip that receives the radio waves, and ensures that you can send and receive data.

Router, modem and access point

The access point is built into your modem or router, two devices you need to use the Wi-Fi. Your wireless modem sends data from your network to other networks, while the router makes sure that the Wi-Fi signals of your access point reach your device. Nowadays, you don't need three different devices to stay connected to the internet. The technology keeps developing, and most internet providers provide one device that combines the functions of the router, modem and access point.

Wi-Fi chip in your wireless device

Your smartphone, laptop and other wireless devices contain a Wi-Fi chip. This chip receives signals and sends them to your router in order to give you access to the internet. Older devices don't always have a Wi-Fi chip. This means you can only connect the device to the internet with a cable. You connect the network cable to the usb port of your computer, for example, to make sure you are connected to the internet.

Wi-Fi network security

To keep other people from using your Wi-Fi network, you encrypt the system. This isn't something you have to do by yourself, because that would be too complicated. Your network provider makes sure you have a secured connection. There are different methods to secure your network. The oldest security standard is Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP). This is a security measure that encrypts data when you send it, but arrives at the receiver nonencrypted. This method is easy to crack, which is why we don't use it very often anymore.

Newer encryption methods like Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and WPA2 are harder to crack and therefore more popular. WPA can be cracked, but only when the hackers uses a lot of effort. WPA2 is nearly impossible to crack. In 2017, there was a WPA2 data breach, but after updating your wireless devices the security was up to date again. Since then, WPA2 has been working great and the risks are very small for internet users.

How did we use the internet without Wi-Fi?

Millennials probably can't even imagine it, but there was a world before Wi-Fi. In this time, computers were connected to the internet with a network cable. These cables still exist, but they are rarely used anymore. Even fixed devices like computers and game consoles use the rapidly working Wi-Fi networks.

No life without wireless networks

Can you even imagine that Wi-Fi wouldn't exist in our daily life? At home, you use your own Wi-Fi network, at school or at work you use the business network. Even on the road you connect to wireless networks, in the train or at the airport for example. Are you in the library? Wi-Fi. In a hotel or restaurant? Wi-Fi. The hotspots have extended quite a lot in the last decade. If the Wi-Fi were omitted, it would change our whole communication with other people.

Does Wi-Fi radiation cause health risks?

Many people believe that electromagnetic waves influence our health in a negative way. They are said to cause cancer, for example. Because this is plausible, several researchers study the effects of Wi-Fi on our health. Some studies claim that the radiation might cause health risks. None of the studies have irrefutible evidence, though. Different studies, on the other hand, claim that Wi-Fi radiation is completely harmless for people. We're still searching for a definite answer to the question, because the results are not clear.

What do you think? Does Wi-Fi radiation cause health risks for human beings?

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