What are Wi-Fi and WiMax?

Posted By BrokenClaw on June 17, 2008

Wi-Fi and WiMAX are two types of wireless broadband connections used primarily for networked devices such as your laptop computer. Wireless connections allow devices to communicate across the network without having to be plugged in with a traditional Ethernet cable.

Although some “smart phones” can connect to the Internet via Wi-Fi, cellphones generally use completely different technologies to connect to the phone networks: CDMA, GSM, 2G, 3G, etc.

Wi-Fi

The term Wi-Fi is an acronym for wireless fidelity, although that description does not really have much meaning, other than as an homage to an earlier technology known as hi-fi, which was high fidelity audio.

Wi-Fi technology has a relatively short range of coverage and doesn’t generally extend very far outside the building in which it resides. But that’s what makes it useful in homes which share a broadband connection among several computers, game consoles, printers, etc. All modern home routers include some version of Wi-Fi. The router, then, is the wireless access point. To receive a wireless signal, the device needs to have a matching wireless adapter. Modern laptop computers have the adapter built-in or available as a small USB plug-in device. Desktop computers can use an expansion card or a USB adapter for wireless connections.

The process to set up Wi-Fi in your home includes:

  1. Installing a Wi-Fi router with a unique password
  2. Setting up the Wi-Fi signal with some type of encryption
  3. Configuring the wireless devices to connect to your router

In business, Wi-Fi serves the same purpose, to allow the employees’ laptop computers to connect to the corporate network without having to plug into an Ethernet port. In large buildings, such as hospitals, airports, and office buildings, there are other devices, simply called repeaters or extenders, which extend the range of the central Wi-Fi access point.

Some retail businesses, such as restaurants and coffee shops, do not encrypt their Wi-Fi signal, so that customers can connect free of charge. This type of setup is called open Wi-Fi, because the Internet connection is open to anyone with a wireless-enabled device. Other businesses use it as a revenue source by charging a fee, either daily or by subscription, for use of their Wi-Fi network.

In towns and cities where homes and businesses are in close proximity, there are many places, possibly your own home, where several Wi-Fi networks overlap and are detected by your wireless computer. In other words, depending on whether or not their network is encrypted, it’s possible to connect to your neighbor’s Wi-Fi without much trouble. The practice of using an open Wi-Fi access point, which is not intentionally open to the public, is called piggybacking.

There are security dangers in using an open Wi-Fi connection, because you have little control over the signal going to and from your computer. It is possible that someone could monitor your Internet traffic, either “in the air” or at the access point, so it may not be wise to use open Wi-Fi for any business for which you expect personal privacy.

WiMAX

WiMAX is a much more complicated system, using various technologies, to extend wireless connectivity over a wide land area. The acronym stands for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access. In theory, WiMAX could be used in a municipal setting to connect a whole neighborhood or town to the Internet, without the need for any cable or DSL lines. WiMAX can also be used to connect various Wi-Fi access points together and then to the Internet.

As of 2009, WiMAX technology still has not improved sufficiently for general use. It has been installed in various places around the world, but deployment and maintenance of the equipment has proven costly and impractical in most cases. Some analysts believe that the proliferation of municipal WiMAX has been artificially hampered in the US by the special interests of telecommunication companies who also operate as ISPs.

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