Technical Terms: Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is a made-up term that refers to the way we connect wirelessly to our networks and the Internet beyond. People use a variety of terms to describe Wi-Fi Base Stations, but each has a subtly different meaning.
Video Transcript / Captions
Closed captioning for this video is available on YouTube: Technical Terms: Wi-Fi.

So here's a technical term that I'm sure everybody has heard but you may not know all the details about it. It's Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is something just about everybody uses and throws around the term. But do you really know where it came from and what it means? One of the things most people don't realize is Wi-Fi really doesn't stand for anything. It basically was kind of a pun on high fidelity. Instead of hi-fi, Wi-Fi. But the Fi doesn't stand for anything. Wi could be wireless but I mean it could also mean wired so it really doesn't stand for anything.

It was actually a term that some brand experts came up with around 1999 to describe a set of standards. The only real use for the term Wi-Fi is when you're talking about Wi-Fi certification or Wi-Fi certified. So there is something called the Wi-Fi Alliance and it's a whole bunch of companies. They basically enforce standards. If you want to say that your device is Wi-Fi certified then you actually have to get it certified. It actually has to meet certain criteria so it works on various devices that also say they use Wi-Fi. Of course it's going to work with that. Nobody would buy the device if it didn't work with that. But it's nice to know that devices are sometimes Wi-Fi certified. Nobody really pays attention to it because pretty much all the devices you would get from major brands are Wi-Fi certified.

Now Wi-Fi certified, the certification, is actually adhering to a standard called IEEE 802.11. You may have seen this before. We used to talk about it a lot more as things were in development. You'd get a new Mac and they would say that this new Mac uses 802.11n and in order to take advantage of that you would need a Wi-Fi base station that also uses 802.11n. Originally we all used devices that were 802.11b and then g was a better one and then we went to n and now ac is pretty standard around. There are other ones in-between these.

Basically each one builds on the last promising faster speeds, greater distances, things like that. There's always backwards compatibility. So if you have a device, a computing device that you actually hold in your hand or use that uses 802.11g and you have a base station that's 802.11ac then it will work. It doesn't work the other way around though. If the base station is only 802.11g and the device uses 802.11ac you're not going to be able to use things at that speed. It's going to drop to all the way back to 802.11g speeds. So for best compatibility you want to make sure that everything is the latest. But it's really a non issue for most people. Anything 802.11n or after is going to be pretty fast and all devices are kind of way past that by many years.

Now when we talk about Wi-Fi we talk about things like base stations. So these are the actual things you're connecting to. Of course Wi-Fi is also in your iPhone, it's in your iPad, it's in your Macs. Any device you've got. Even in Wi-Fi enabled cameras and other devices. Things like that. But the base station is what they all connect to. They can be things like the Airport Extreme or some other brand of base station. Even commercial ones. So one that you may see in the ceiling of a coffee shop or something like that. So there's all sorts of different ones.

Nowadays they're built into the devices that you might get from your DSL or cable modem company. It may come with a device that hooks up to their phone or cable system that also has a Wi-Fi antenna in it. So they don't have to be independent devices like the Airport Extreme is independent and you connect that. So you have two devices like I do. A DSL modem and an Airport Extreme connected to that. A lot of people today have a single device. This is why things like the Airport Extreme are kind of going away for consumers. It's because it's easy for the DSL and cable modem companies to build Wi-Fi into their modems. So you don't need to get another device.

Now terminology gets a little cloudy if you talk to people and see what they call these devices. It seems like technically base station is probably the best term. It's the term Apple uses and it's also the term thrown around on Wikipedia a lot when talking about this. So base station is one of those devices that sets up a Wi-Fi network. People call them other things. You hear people call them a router, a hub, certainly a hotspot, gateway, antenna, you know obviously antenna is a part of this but people just say my wi-fi antenna is over there. A transmitter, of course it's actually transmitting and receiving. A network switch or an access point or even just calling it a modem. Of course a modem is a separate thing but as I said they're combined now. You get a modem that has Wi-Fi in it so people just call the whole thing a modem.

Any of these terms are fine. They're technically correct probably in some way or another. But they are thrown around a lot so it kind of clouds the waters in terms of understanding what somebody is talking about when they use one of these terms. In most cases they're talking about a Wi-Fi base station.