To many of us, the term 'Wi-Fi' is reminiscent of the old 'Hi-Fi' term - meaning High Fidelity audio, but actually the Wi-Fi term doesn't mean anything officially (according to the Wi-Fi Alliance itself) - it's just one of those terms that has caught on and been adopted by both the public and the technology industry.
So... What is Wi-Fi?
Essentially, it's a wireless network (WLAN) device that is based on the IEEE 802.11 set of standards, of which there are several. Today, we find Wi-Fi in a huge array of consumer electronics including PC's/Mac's (normally laptops or notebooks,) smart-phones, video-games consoles, printers and other peripherals and handheld devices.
Since Wi-Fi has become synonymous with the 802.11 standard, we often use the term loosely for any wireless device. (In much the same way that many of us call our vacuum cleaner a 'Hoover' - which is actually a brand/product name.) Care must be taken with the term though, as it is a registered trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance - a global, non-profit association of companies that provides a 'Wi-Fi Certified' endorsement when a product is tested to meet certain standards.
Of course, not all 802.11 devices are Wi-Fi Certified, and this doesn't mean that they're incompatible with other 802.11 devices or there is anything wrong with them... It just means they haven't gone through the rather costly certification process.
Many of us associate Wi-Fi with 'HotSpots' in cafes and restaurants; a wireless access point whereby we can connect to the internet to enhance the use of our laptop, PDA, phone, MP3 player or handheld video game.
In and around London as an example there are also 'Mesh' networks created by many overlapping Wi-Fi access point communities. Sometimes the access is provided free, and other times it is charged for. We see many hotels and airports providing 'Free Wi-Fi' as an advertised feature to entice us to use their facilities.
Wireless networking in the home has also become far more prevalent now, with many ISPs (Internet Service Providers) like BT providing Wireless routers as standard on certain packages. BT have taken this one step further by providing routers that also function as BT 'OpenZone' access points - maybe trying to turn the entire country into one huge Wi-Fi Mesh network! Wi-Fi has also made it possible to access the internet or networks from places that you wouldn't normally be able to; kitchens, garages, garden sheds and even the bathroom all spring to mind for the keen internet surfer!
Many people who work from home can enjoy the summer sun in their garden or conservatory whilst emailing a spreadsheet to their office or clients - so the social effect of this technology is quite pronounced too.
We're seeing a huge uptake in business as well. Multiple Wi-Fi access points have become the norm in many corporate environments, providing multiple redundancy, faster data access, full roaming capabilities and an increased network capacity for more users. Because there are no cables, hard to access places can be networked, such as outdoors and historical/protected buildings.
Installation costs can also often be reduced. New voice-application protocols such as VoWLAN (Voice over Wireless LAN) or WVOIP (Wireless Voice Over IP) also enable calls and voice communication without a traditional 'phone-call'. Since 2007, a full Wi-Fi installation is now capable of providing a secure network gateway, DHCP server, firewall and intrusion detection system. It's come a long way, very quickly.
Wi-Fi Wireless Networking Standards & Security
Because of the worldwide Wi-Fi Alliance 'Wi-Fi Certified' program, any standard Wi-Fi device will work anywhere in the world, despite competing brands and technologies. It is a truly global set of standards (unlike mobile phones for instance, which have multiple standards and transmission bands etc.) It is currently estimated that Wi-Fi access is available through over 220,000 public hotspots - not to mentions the tens of millions of homes and many corporate and educational sites worldwide.
By their very nature, Wi-Fi networks have a limited communications range. Since the signal is affected by anything that blocks it, you'll get a wider range outside or in an open-plan office than you would through walls. An average wireless router communicating via 802.11b (the old 'slow' standard) or 802.11g (the mainstream current standard) with a 'stock' antenna will probably achieve an effective range of around 30m indoors or 90m outdoors.
The newer 802.11n standard can more than double that range. But with further range, comes slower access speeds due to more drop-outs and errors in transmission.
For wireless security, the currently recommended WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access IEEE 802.11i) is considered secure enough, as long as a strong key is used. The more common and older WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) is quite easy to hack now, even when it's set up properly. WPA encryption became available during 2003 and sought to stop people from sticking with the 'out-of-the-box' default option of 'no security at all' - thus making all their communicated data available to anyone who wanted to reach out and grab it from the air.
The chief issue with wireless security is how much simpler it is to access a network and divert a signal as compared to a hard-wired network. If a hacker wants to break into a physical network then they would need to find a way of breaking into an internal network, having to navigate firewalls etc. But if an unencrypted wireless network is available, then an immediate access point is created. There are still many businesses today that use unencrypted networks, relying on their ability to stop a hacker's initial access.
Wireless Network Certification Tracks
For students new to the field of IT, you would typically start with the CompTIA A+ & Network+ to ensure a full understanding of basic networking prior to specialising in wireless technologies. The CWNA (Certified Wireless Network Administrator) is considered by many to be an excellent vendor-neutral starter program covering:
Radio technologies; antenna concepts; wireless LAN hardware and software; network design, installation and management; wireless standards and organisations; 802.11x network architecture; wireless LAN security; troubleshooting and how to perform site surveys.
The CompTIA Network+ syllabus covers basic wireless networking and provides the ideal bridge to the CWNA. Following CWNA certification, there are additional exams available through the CWNP (Certified Wireless Network Professional) program and various vendor-based certifications like the Cisco CCNA Wireless, Cisco CCNP track and others.
Wireless Certification Programs(5 Related Products)
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