WiFi has a major impact on our daily lives and is partially responsible for all the connectivity we have in our lives today. Yet WiFi is not magic, and it doesn’t spontaneously appear from the sky to provide us with internet access. It is something to be set up and optimized so that we can get the best and most secure possible connection.
If WiFi is not magic, then what is it? What more is there to learn about it? And how does one set it up properly? We’re here to help you answer all these questions and more in the following sections, so please keep on reading:
What is WiFi?
WiFi stands for “Wireless Fidelity” and is a series of wireless network protocols meant for linking devices together (creating local area networks) using radio waves. Generally, the networks allow compatible devices to exchange data over the network, eliminating the need for a wired connection. This is helpful, as a wired connection is impossible or impractical with some types of devices. There is a bit more to it than that in terms of the technical aspects, but we’ll get into that later.
“Wi-Fi” is technically a trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance, though most everything talks about being able to connect to WiFi and the like (“WiFi certified” is more restricted in its use). WiFi is a marketing term, though it is so commonly used that it is just what we call it these days and for the foreseeable future. It’s much more conversation-friendly than the alternatives.
We would like to point out that your WiFi network is not your internet service. Your broadband connection is your internet service. Yet the distinction might become fuzzy in other discussions on internet services and the like, so be careful yet open-minded.
How Does it Work
Without going too in-depth about the science of radio waves and networking (we could be here all day and then some), it works via the following:
Your modem is connected to (or combined with by default) a router, which extends the internet service coming into your home to the router. Routers use radio waves to transmit information (the internet) using an antenna (you may or may not see the antenna itself on your router). You can technically create a network using a router and not a modem, but such a network would be limited to sending information between devices on that network, and you wouldn’t be able to connect to the internet.
Two frequencies are generally used on WiFi, though more may be added or become more common in the future. These are 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, but more on these later. These frequencies are split between multiple channels to prevent interference. Radio waves transmit information to and from binary code as needed on your devices.
There’s a lot more to it than the above, but it would require its own article, class, lecture series, and book. For the moment, just trust that it’s based on radio waves, has been shown to be perfectly safe thus far, and is still developing over time.
Everything to Know About Your Modem and Router
Outside of a few cables, the stars of the WiFi show are your modem and your router. They are what create WiFi as you know it. Therefore, it might be helpful to know a bit more about them and what to look for from each of them.
What Does Each Device Do?
The modem itself doesn’t have too much to do with your WiFi unless you are using a modem/router combo (sometimes called a “network gateway” by some ISPs). Nonetheless, each is essential, and the modem is essential to getting a broadband connection into your home so your WiFi has something to work off of. It converts the broadband signal into something usable by you and the devices in your home.
The router is what creates the WiFi network, creating and sending out the signal that devices use to connect to the internet (this is a simplification). It is what is responsible for the range of the network, how many devices can be on the network, and a few other things. It will be the main variable for your WiFi network (outside of the original internet plan you are paying for).
What to Look for in a Router
If you need to buy a router, here are the key things to consider:
- The number of devices it can support at once. While this is not a problem for many homes, people with a lot of devices or a smart home might want to ensure that they can keep all those devices connected at once.
- The maximum range of the router is key. There is a standard set of ranges, but some routers are better than others in their maximum range and operation at that range.
- How many ports does the router have? This isn’t as important as in a modem, but it can be handy.
- There may also be extra features that could interest you. Many routers have smart features and apps that allow you to control your network from your smartphone easily.
- The price of a router can vary greatly depending on what you hope to get from it. Some people might only need the cheapest router on the market, for example, those with a DSL connection. These can cost about $40. Others might want the best possible router that does everything but your laundry, providing an amazing experience throughout your home (in theory). These can easily go for several hundred dollars.
- There is also a strong chance you will be supplied a router (or a modem/router combo) from your ISP, often on a rental basis. A few providers will force you to use their equipment, so pick out your provider before buying a router or a modem.
What to Look for in a Modem
Someone looking for a modem will want to look for the following:
- You will want to make sure that it is well-built and well-designed. While abusing your modem is not recommended, it might be subject to something knocking into it or it falling over. Make sure it won’t disintegrate with an angry look.
- What is the maximum bandwidth the modem can handle? If it is less than the maximum speed of your internet service plan, then you would be doing yourself a disservice by using it. If you plan on using the modem for the long-term, try to find one that is not only good for the immediate moment but for future internet plans, you might also be working with.
- How many ports does it have, and of what kind? Too few ports will mean you will be limited if you do want to use a few wired connections at any time instead of WiFi.
- What service providers is it compatible with? Not all modems are compatible with all providers or service types. This means that you should pick out your service provider and plan first if you’re buying your own modem and that you should also double-check on this before picking out a modem to buy.
How to Set Up a WiFi Network
There is a strong chance that your ISP will set up the wireless network for you when installing your internet service. Alternatively, your WiFi might be set up as part of a self-installation process, in which case there will likely be specific instructions sent along.
What about setting up a new network in general? The steps are as follows:
- You will need to make sure you have a modem and router. You should at least have a modem through your ISP if you don’t have your own. This means making sure you have a router, either through a modem/router combo (“gateway” to some providers) or getting it yourself.
- You will want to make sure all of the cables are connected properly. This can vary based on the setup. You’ll either need your broadband connection to connect to your modem/router combo, or you may need to connect your modem and router. See the appropriate manuals for the correct ports for this. You’ll also need to plug in the devices to get power. You might need to wait up to a minute for things to turn on properly.
- Configuring the router comes next. This might be something that will happen automatically, but outside of this, you can enter the router’s default IP address into your internet browser and then sign in. You can sign in using the default information included in the router’s instructions.
- Next, you’ll need to consider the settings you want to use and the setup. You’ll want to create a new network password, and you’ll similarly want to set the encryption standard (we recommend WPA2 or WPA3). Make sure to save all your settings.
- There isn’t much more to it than this, though you may want to connect all your devices next and ensure that the network is working properly. Remember to check the manual for your router and read any instructions on your screen that pop up, as there will be variations in the process.
When to Go Wired and When to Use WiFi
While WiFi can be fantastic, it is not the only tool at your disposal and might not be the best choice for every situation. There are also ethernet connections which will provide the most consistent and usually fastest connection to the internet for a device. While WiFi is getting better, an ethernet cable will almost always be able to utilize the full capabilities of a given network.
We recommend using an ethernet (wired connection) if:
- You are looking for the fastest possible connection.
- The device isn’t all that mobile (like a desktop computer), and running an ethernet cable to it wouldn’t be a hassle or put it in the way.
- The device you want to connect it to has had issues with WiFi in the past, and you want to ensure a solid connection for it.
- You are temporarily downloading a larger file, and using an ethernet cable for a while wouldn’t be an inconvenience.
We recommend using WiFi if:
- The device(s) being used does not have an ethernet port. Even if there is a way to get an adapter working to an ethernet connection, it usually isn’t worth the trouble compared to using WiFi.
- You expect to be moving either the device or yourself with the device regularly.
- You are using multiple devices, and either do not have the ports or cables to plug them all in or do not want to.
- The device will be in a place where additional wires or cables would be a hassle or even a tripping hazard.
2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, or 6Ghz?
There are several bands used for WiFi, and you might have the opportunity to choose between them. They represent different options for what you might prioritize on your network, and each is essentially one generation of network technology that has made WiFi better and faster.
However, it should be noted that while you can choose between them, often you won’t have to. Devices are smart enough these days too, for the most part, automatically use the band that is going to work best in the present moment. If you move the device while maintaining the same connection, you might want to adjust the settings, but you probably don’t have to choose between one and the other.
What Do These Numbers Mean?
They are the frequencies used for WiFi, and each of them has different properties for WiFi use that might make them helpful in certain circumstances.
2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bandwidths have been out for some time now and are available on every router or modem/router combo you will see available today. You might see that there are situations for each of them, but overall, 5 GHz is better for speed if you are in range, and 2.4 GHz is older and slower but has a larger range.
Then there’s 6 GHz, a newer option associated more with newer routers and devices. You may or may not have it on the tech you have now, but the next time you are looking to upgrade, you should certainly be looking for compatibility with the 6 GHz band.
Which One to Pick?
Radio frequencies are great and all, but that information doesn’t help you much in the middle of looking at a settings menu. Which band should you pick if you must make a choice?
Use 2.4 GHz if:
- You expect to use the network mostly at a long range.
- You have tried using the other bands and aren’t getting the range or consistent connection you need.
- You are more concerned with consistency and maintaining a connection than speed.
Use 5 GHz if:
- You plan mostly on using devices closer to the WiFi network. The range should technically be 200 feet, but realistically barriers, walls, etc., can lessen this range.
- You have a smaller apartment or home and don’t expect anything you do online there to be out of range of your router on this band.
Use 6 GHz if:
- You have it available to you, and the range would be acceptable to you.
- You want the fastest possible speed and have the equipment to utilize it on both transmission and receiving levels.
It should be noted again that in day-to-day use, nearly every device you use will pick out the band that works best for the moment, potentially using both if they are capable of it. Much of the troubleshooting related to this will be making sure that you didn’t accidentally set the device to broadcast or pick up only one of these bands when you want all of them on. Nonetheless, be aware of which bands your router is using and which ones your devices can pick up. It will make things easier for you.
Public and Private WiFi Networks
Not all WiFi networks are protected the same, and how you act and what you do on different networks needs to adjust depending on what network you are on. Alternatively, you can and should take measures to ensure that you are safe, no matter your network. Generally, you can divide networks into two different categories: public and private. Here is some information on each of them:
How to Protect Yourself on a Public Network
Public networks have a bad reputation for security for a reason. Without protection on your end, in many circumstances, a cybercriminal can sit around on the same network and see a lot of what you are doing. Cybercrime is a multi-billion (if not trillion, depending on who you’re asking) business.
The ways you can protect yourself on a public network include:
- Use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) whenever you are using a public network. It will encrypt your information and effectively route it through a safe tunnel to the intended recipient. To anyone trying to spy on what you’re doing on the public network, the most they will be able to tell is that you’re using a public network.
- Change your browsing habits while you are on public networks. Avoid sites that do not have SSL protection (only use HTTPS sites instead of HTTP sites). Similarly, be careful about what sites you use on public networks or in general. Some sites are traps, and your browser or security program will hopefully label them as unsafe.
- You will want to avoid using personal or financial information online on a public network. You will probably do a better job in a less crowded area anyhow.
- If you need to do something more private, switch to using mobile data instead of working on the public network. A public network is fine if you’re doing something like streaming video or music, both of which can be pretty data-intensive. Online banking and paying bills are good uses of your data allowance and aren’t too data-intensive anyhow.
- Start being wary about the networks you use and how protected they are. Some have better protections than others, request that you use a password, or otherwise limit usage to patrons of the establishment. Others, such as those commonly found at fast food restaurants, are not so guarded. With the most suspicious networks, such as those with strange names or trying to imitate another network, you should avoid them altogether, even with protections on your device.
- Learn about many of the common schemes and traps that hackers and cybercriminals will use to try and lure people on illicit public networks or otherwise steal their information. Read up on what you can, and note that strategies are constantly changing, and defenses can get outdated quickly (otherwise, we would list them more thoroughly here).
- There are settings or options on either websites or apps that will ask you whether this is a “trusted device” or if you are on a private network so your login information can be saved. Take heed of these warnings, and only do so if you are actually on a secure and trusted network.
How to Keep Your Private Network Private
Then there are private networks, which are pretty much what you have at home and what a business might use (assuming a smaller office). These are password protected and are generally better protected than the public networks you would see on average. We expect that a private network is what you’ll be using most often.
As for what to do:
- The first thing to do is to familiarize yourself with the network. If you know what settings you can change and how you will be better able to both protect yourself and improve your overall experience. Even if the default security protocols are just what you are looking for, you can still double-check to make sure that things are as they should be.
- It is also important to change your password every once in a while (we recommend at least once every six months). This will keep anyone who might have used it once from coming back with ill intent and give you a good excuse to check on your other devices.
- Keep your network security in general. That means keeping it free of malware, unwanted guests, and other intrusions. For more on this, please see the “WiFi Network Security” section right after this.
- If you are still worried about people watching what you do on even a private network, you can use a VPN. There are also ways to install a VPN onto a router to make it the default for a network, but we would not generally recommend this. It can slow down a connection, and using it on a device-by-device base is easy.
WiFi Network Security
WiFi networks are very convenient, but they can be vulnerable to your data and personal security if you are not careful and do not practice the correct security precautions. Cybercrime is a huge issue, and it can affect you on your private and public networks. The good news is that networks can be quite secure if you treat them right, and creating a secure setup doesn’t take long.
Here are some of the key things to know and do:
- The first thing you need to do (and this is an absolute must for your home WiFi network) is to make sure you have a secure password for your network(s).
- What is a secure password? A decent combination of capital letters, lowercase letters, and numbers. Some symbols may be allowed. Try to use a variety of characters in a reasonably long password. Make sure it isn’t easily guessed. Your cat’s name might be wonderful, but it doesn’t make for a good password. Similarly, don’t use commonly used passwords or words that can be found in the dictionary. They’re the first thing hackers will try.
- Make sure that you are secure when it comes to the details of your network. Human error is the cause of most data breaches, and new scams and tricks are being developed every day. Malware can get into your devices via many vectors and, in some cases, can infect your entire network. You want to keep that from happening and make sure your WiFi password isn’t easily found. While you might keep it in a sticky note on the inside of the drawer, don’t keep it anywhere obvious.
- Be aware of the wireless security protocol on your network, and ensure that a wireless security protocol is active.
- There are several options you might see for security on your network if you look in the settings. Ideally, you will be using WPA2 or WPA3, as they are the newest options and the ones that are secure. WPA might be necessary with some older devices, though at that point, you may wish to get a new device instead of risking your security. Don’t use WEP, it is not considered secure anymore.
- In addition to learning how to protect yourself on public networks, learn about potential scams and hacks that can occur on any network. IP spoofing is a concern, as is piggybacking, wardriving, and DNS cache poisoning. While the chances are low that you’ll be targeted, the chances are also constant. Stay vigilant and protect your network.
How Having a Good WiFi Network Helps You
Making sure you have a solid WiFi network is one of the best things you can do to improve your quality-of-life day by day. You might find taking care of your network occasionally and optimizing your network now to be a bit of a chore, but with the right internet plan and a solid setup, you will have a lot less to worry about and plenty to be happy about.
Some of the benefits you’ll enjoy are:
- A better network will allow you to do more without experiencing a dropped connection or cutouts in your service. While a better WiFi network won’t solve problems stemming from your ISP, many problems are network related and preventable.
- You will be able to download things faster. The difference between an amazing network and an average network is the difference between waiting five minutes for a download and 50 minutes. It can make work, gaming, and whatever media you like much easier.
- A better WiFi network is a network that has more range. With the right network and equipment, you will be able to ensure that you can work or play wherever you’d like in your household with a little downgrade in the signal and fewer drops in the connection. It’ll allow you to reimagine your space.
- It will also make you more mobile in your household. If the living room gets busy, just take yourself and your laptop to another room without worrying whether the connection will drop or fall off.
- More people will be able to use the network simultaneously, or you will be able to run more devices on the network simultaneously without issue.
- Overall, you can just expect a better quality of life, especially if your connection is poor now. People need a good internet connection for work, education, keeping in touch with loved ones, and personal enjoyment. While after a certain point, the rise in quality of life isn’t that noticeable until then someone’s internet connection makes a huge difference. The seconds waiting for a page to load add up, and having a better connection reduces the daily frustration of a poor network. It is 100 percent an investment worth making.
Does Your ISP Affect Your WiFi?
Yes, it does.
You will not get a WiFi network that is faster than your base connection. And your WiFi network will be somewhat slower than your broadband internet connection. Therefore, you should plan what plan you get carefully to ensure that you are getting sufficient speed and connection quality.
If you plan on changing your WiFi network, expect more people using it, or want to extend it to further areas of your home, you might need more bandwidth on your internet service plan. You might also need more or better equipment, but that is a different concern and doesn’t have anything to do with your ISP unless you rent your equipment. Your ISP also determines your connection type, which in turn, affects many different things. Your WiFi won’t feel as responsive if you use satellite internet instead of fiber.
However, while your ISP might be the one providing your broadband service, they aren’t providing WiFi service per se. They might set it up during your service installation and provide you with equipment to create a WiFi network, but after that, it’s generally yours to modify as you feel the need.
So in short: your internet service plan and provider certainly affect the end result you get from your WiFi, but they are not necessarily responsible for them. You are the one in control of your network and what people do with it. You can control the placement of your router and the security settings on your network. And you are the one that controls usage. These are all factors outside of your ISP that affect your WiFi and ones you should know about.
Improving Your WiFi Connection
So, while you know about WiFi and more about setting one up properly (among many other things), how can you make your network faster? What can you do to improve your WiFi connection and have a life where WiFi worries are a thing of the past? We can’t go over every last method as some are situational, but here are the best and most common tips to utilize:
- WiFi is, in many ways, an extension of the internet service you are getting from your ISP. However well-tuned your setup is, and however great your modem and router are, if your service isn’t very good and not enough for your home’s needs, you are going to have a bad time. If you are looking to switch ISPs or upgrade your plan, we can help you explore your options and help you sign up for a better service.
- If you are experiencing general technical difficulties with your connection, whether you have your connection throttled or there is an infrastructure issue near you, contact your ISP. You deserve the service you pay for and are owed at least an explanation as to why things aren’t how they should be.
- As we talked about in previous sections, the hardware matters, and it matters a lot. If your modem or router isn’t doing the job, then it’s time to upgrade. Contact your ISP about it or purchase a good model yourself. There are plenty of options, so we’re certain that you’ll find what you need at a reasonable price.
- If your router does not have the range it needs, you can invest in a range extender. There are quite a few different models on the market, some better than others. However, if you just need to expand your network to an additional room or two, you will be fine with a $30-40 model. If you want a more comprehensive solution and are willing to make the investment, a mesh network setup can also be great. However, that can be a bit more of an undertaking, and we recommend that only to people with faster connections and larger homes.
- Note that not all range extenders are made alike. Some will have a longer range than others, and others may still be good for the equivalent of one room. Do a little research before picking one out.
- If you think a single device or two isn’t capable of using the full capabilities of your network, perhaps a new network adapter for that device might be in order. This is especially a prescription for older laptops and desktops with older adapters that now need a boost. However, it should be noted that some old devices might just need replacement.
- Make sure that the placement of your equipment is optimized in your home. You do not want to keep your router at the end of your home where full coverage won’t be possible. Try to pick a central (or central enough) location in your home where the signal won’t be met with interference.
- Make sure your firmware is updated. This can happen automatically with some modems and routers, but it is good to make sure everything is up to date once or twice a year or when you notice issues.
- Depending on your router, it may be time to get a new or replacement antenna for your router. Many routers have antennas that can be attached separately, and using them can improve your connection. Replacing the antenna should be cheap and easy once you look up the model of your router.
- Finally, if you need the best connection on a device or for a certain task, use an ethernet cable. There is simply no WiFi network that will work better than ethernet, assuming the service is the same. It is an unfortunate truth currently and inconvenient, but there is little that can be changed about it. Still, with the right WiFi network and a good internet plan, an ethernet cable will not be necessary for most tasks.
Checking Your WiFi Speed and Consistency
If you’re reading this, there might be a chance that you are uncertain about how fast your WiFi speed should be. And that is a common problem or question to have. It’s important to know what you’re working with before you get the fancy new computer, consider downloading the latest online game, or get to installing those smart home devices.
And the best way to test your WiFi network is with a speed test. It is generally as easy as that. Look up some of the best speed test tools online and pick out the one that suits your needs (for your basic purposes, there won’t be enough difference between tests to be of any concern). All you usually have to do after going to the speed test page is click on the “Go” or “Start” button (and even then, some start automatically). Yet preparation and diligence can bring better results. To properly test your WiFi network using a speed test, we recommend the following:
- Test your network multiple times throughout the day. While your WiFi network should remain consistent throughout the day, your broadband internet service may not. This could lead to times of the day when your whole setup isn’t as fast.
- Perform a test on a device that is connected directly to the network using an ethernet cable. This allows you to get a baseline and know the dropoff between your actual speed and WiFi speed. It also lets you know if you’re getting less of a download speed than you are paying for. While this is an article about WiFi, getting as much information as possible is vital.
- Test from multiple areas of the home, especially places you worry the WiFi network may not get to. You can help determine the true range of your network this way and determine if any areas might need the help of a range extender or other equipment.
- Also, test close to the router to get a baseline and perhaps if there is interference close by.
- Test using a few different devices, especially if you think you have a problem with your network. This will help you determine if an issue is related to a single device or an issue with the network as a whole. On top of a speed test, you need to consider the other signs you might be getting and your intuition.
- Record all your results. Some speed tests allow you to email your results or save them to an account. A screenshot of the results on your device will also work fine. And, of course, you can use pen and paper or a spreadsheet to track your speed tests meticulously.
There is a lot to WiFi, both when talking about it technically as well as in practical terms of how it relates to your daily life. While most of the time, we hope you are enjoying it and hardly thinking about it, your network does require a check-up once in a while, and problems can arise. Yet, with the above information and a bit of time, those measures and fixes should become easy and/or routine for you.
Remember to test regularly and utilize your equipment to the fullest. We hope that the above information was helpful for you and that you can better understand any questions or problems you have now. Thank you for reading, and come back to this page as you feel the need.
What is WiFi?
WiFi stands for Wireless Fidelity, and it is a family of wireless network protocols. Essentially, it is a series of technologies that allow devices to communicate with each other utilizing radio waves. With the use of a router devices can communicate with each other on one network, and if the network is linked to an internet connection (as nearly all are) internet usage is possible on those wireless devices. WiFi might not be the internet, as is a common misconception, but it is how most devices access it.
What do I need to have WiFi?
In general, to have a WiFi network that allows your devices to connect to the internet, you need to have a modem, a router, and a plan with an internet service provider. Technically, all you need is a router to set up a network, though your devices will only be able to communicate with each other.
Once you have these things, setup will be easy through either a self-installation process from your ISP (you’ll get instructions) or professional setup through your ISP. We promise it isn’t as complicated as it might seem.
How do I improve my WiFi network?
There are several ways to improve your WiFi Network. Our advice will vary depending on your goal for it. Do you want more speed? Try to get a better internet plan, optimize your usage of your network, and make sure your equipment is in order. Do you need to improve the range of your network? If so, you might need to install a range extender, get a better router, or optimize the placement of your equipment. We discuss several ways to improve your network in the article above.
How can I check my WiFi speed?
While you might be able to notice if something is off from regular usage, the best way to check on your WiFi network is with an internet speed test. You can find plenty online with a quick search, though we recommend you use ours. Remember to run the test under normal conditions, and also to run it at different times of the day. You may also want to run tests using different devices or in different areas of your home if you think you have a specific issue.
How can I keep a WiFi network secure?
There are a few steps you can take to help keep your WiFi network more secure. You can ensure that you have a strong password for it and change that password regularly. You can use WPA2 or WPA3 encryption on the network. You can ensure that there is no malware on your devices. And above all else, investigate anything suspicious and use your common sense when setting up and using your network.
As for networks outside your home, the best thing you can do is protect the device you are using and be careful of what information you are accessing or sending on the network. Use a VPN or your mobile data plan if you are worried about privacy or security.