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What is wireless internet (Wi-Fi)?

A wifi signpost

Wireless networking - which is often just known as Wi-Fi - is a way of getting broadband internet without wires.

Wi-Fi allows you to connect several computers at once, anywhere in the house - or if you have a laptop, to even use your computer in the garden. You don’t need to install extra phone lines or cables.

WebWise Team | 10th October 2012

Millions of Britons already connect to the internet using Wi-Fi – pronounced ‘why-fy’. It’s also known as ‘wireless networking’ or ‘wireless fidelity’.

Wi-Fi is widely installed in cafés, airports and many other public buildings. If you have seen someone at your local coffee shop surfing the internet on a laptop computer, they are probably using a Wi-Fi network..

How does Wi-Fi work?

Wi-Fi creates a network in your home or office – a little zone where computers can get broadband internet. It uses radio waves, just like TV or mobile phones. You may sometimes hear this zone referred to as a WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network).

A device called a wireless transmitter receives information from the internet via your broadband connection. The transmitter converts the information into a radio signal and sends it.

You could think of the transmitter as a mini radio station, broadcasting signals sent from the internet. The ‘audience’ for these transmissions is the computer (or computers, as more than one can connect at the same time) which receives the radio signal via something called a wireless adapter.

The whole process, meanwhile, works in reverse, with the computer sending information to the wireless transmitter. It then converts them and sends them via your broadband connection.

How do I set up Wi-Fi?

To use Wi-Fi you will need certain equipment:

  • A wireless transmitter, also known as a Wireless Access Point (WAP)
  • A Wi-Fi adapter on every computer that will use Wi-Fi

You may find that you already have a Wi-Fi network, as many ISPs (internet service providers) are setting up new customers with Wi-Fi from the outset.

If not, you could call your ISP and ask to upgrade. They might even upgrade you for free - and send you some or all of the equipment. If not, you might consider checking whether other ISPs are offering Wi-Fi to new customers.

In any case, you can buy the equipment yourself and set up your own Wi-Fi network using your existing broadband connection.

Many ISPs will supply you with a router, modem and wireless transmitter combined in one device, which it calls ‘the router’. To make your Wi-Fi set-up as simple as possible, you should consider using a similar device.

The router plugs directly into a phone socket and doesn’t need a computer to run it, so you don’t have to set up your computer next to the router.

Computers – mainly laptops – increasingly have built-in Wi-Fi receivers. If not, the simplest method of installing a receiver is a dongle - a little device that plugs into a USB port and transmits between your PC and wireless router.

The WebWise 'W'

WebWise Team

WebWise was first launched in 1998 and since then has helped people of all ages to learn about and love the internet.