Wireless Technologies Explained

By Melissa Rudy
Updated: May 15, 2012

Wireless Technologies Explained

Wireless technology has pervaded our society so completely that it's hard to imagine life without it. We use wireless to power a long list of gadgets and gizmos, from simple household items to powerful, pocket-sized devices.

Just a few of the many products that use wireless technology include:

  • Baby monitors and walkie-talkies
  • Garage door openers and automatic car starters
  • Cordless hardline phones, cordless keyboards, and cordless mice
  • Remote controls for TVs, DVD players, and stereo systems
  • Satellite television and global positioning systems (GPS)
  • Wireless LANs (local area networks)
  • Cell phones, smartphones, and PDAs
  • Tablet computers

Categories of Wireless Technology

Today's wireless devices operate through a variety of means. Perhaps the most complex wireless systems are the cellular and LAN networks used to power cell phones and mobile Internet devices. However, there are four basic categories of wireless technology:

  1. Fixed wireless: This category includes short-range wireless devices, such as home LAN systems
  2. Mobile wireless: Long-distance wireless solutions include cellular networks, satellite services, and broadband LAN, also known as Wi-Fi
  3. Infrared (IR) wireless: This technology is used in short- and medium-range wireless transmission for devices like remote controls and cordless peripherals
  4. Radio frequency (RF) wireless: Wireless signals are transmitted through radio frequencies, such as those used for baby monitors and walkie-talkies.

Most of these categories are fairly straightforward, with the exception of mobile wireless. This is the most well known form of wireless technology used today, and there are many different types of mobile wireless that power our most essential devices.

Wireless Fidelity

This type of wireless technology, commonly known as Wi-Fi, uses radio waves to transmit data over a computer network. While most people use Wi-Fi to describe any wireless local area network (WLAN), the name is actually trademarked by the Wi-Fi Alliance, referring specifically to products that use IEEE 802.11 standards.

In order to connect to this type of network, a device must be Wi-Fi-enabled. This is the most common type of connection used for laptop computers. Some smartphones and tablet PCs also connect through Wi-Fi networks.

Because Wi-Fi has a limited range, devices that connect through it must be within range of a network. Wi-Fi networks are typically referred to as “hot spots.” Many stores, restaurants, and businesses offer free Wi-Fi access through a dedicated WLAN to entice customers to linger. There are even some college campuses and a few entire cities, such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Sunnyvale, California, that serve as hotspots.

Wi-Fi is useful for laptops and tablet computers, but the technology has limited benefits for mobile phone users. However, there are several cellular networks available.

Cellular Wide Area Networks

A wide area network, or WAN, is wireless technology that covers a large geographical area, usually by connecting several LANs. WANs may serve states, provinces, or countries. The Internet itself is actually categorized as a WAN.

There are a number of cellular WANs used by various service providers to transmit data through cell phones. While they're typically slower than Wi-Fi connections, WANs enjoy far greater coverage. Today, you can get a cell phone signal in just about any populated area.

The most popular cellular WANs are the 3G and 4G networks, which are nationally and internationally available. Both of these connections can handle both phone and Internet wireless signals. 3G is the “third generation” of wireless technology, while 4G is the fourth generation—built using the same transmission equipment as the 3G network, but enabled for faster speeds and broader connection areas.

Wireless Technology and You

Nearly everyone uses some form of wireless technology. Its broad availability provides unparalleled advancements that have increased the convenience and quality of our lives. Emergency services, such as OnStar and mobile 911, have been made possible through wireless technology, and medical procedures have been refined and improved.

Despite the lack of wires, we're more connected than ever.

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