Most people nowadays are familiar with Wi-Fi and wireless connectivity between devices, especially Internet-enabled ones. We can access the Internet wirelessly almost anywhere in the world. But most people are unfamiliar with the actual technology that allows this amazing state of affairs to continue. That is to say, many people know how to use that technology, but outside of programmers and computing engineers, few people understand how things like wireless routers work.
First things first: wireless data transmission technology has existed for over 20 years, but only in the last ten or so has it become truly viable for everyday consumers to use. Developed largely by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), an organization consisting of an international consortium of computer engineering and programming experts, wireless data transmission and more specifically Wi-Fi is known to the engineers who invented it as IEEE standard 802.11. This label simply covers a certain range of frequencies and functionalities, and contains several subdivions: A, B, G, and N. (You’re likely familiar with the last two, since most of the wireless routers and other devices manufactured in the past 10 years carry one of those labels.) These letter designations denote significant advances in the technology over time: A is the oldest, and slowest, version of the 802.11 standard, while N is the newest, and fastest.
So what sort of devices use this technology? The answer is simple, but expansive: very nearly all electronics more complicated than a calculator are capable of wireless connectivity. Smart phones, tablet computers, laptop and desktop models, certain gaming consoles, even e-readers: wireless Internet connections have become so common in our everyday lives that many people hardly notice them anymore–and for some young people, being able to access the Internet from any device, anywhere in the home, is accepted as the standard way of living.
What ties all these devices together and allows them to access the Internet? This device, most often a wireless router of some description, is what is called the wireless access point, or WAP. By using the specific frequencies mentioned earlier, these devices transfer data with no wires between themselves and the devices connected to them. The WAP itself often has a wired connection to the outside data line (via a modem) provided by an Internet Service Provider, or ISP.
In recent years, some wireless routers have been manufactured as dual-purpose models, containing both a wireless antenna for Wi-Fi connectivity and a modem for connecting to the Internet. Before these devices, people often had to use a modem and router separately in order to have wireless Internet in their homes or businesses.
Wireless access points can often be found in places other than the home or office, however: many businesses of various types have open networks for customers to use, giving rise to “Internet cafés” and such things. The sheer number of wireless access points in use today has ensured that we are never really farther from one another than the thickness of a screen.