The Ultimate WiFi Glossary: 27 terms you need to know
Do you envy nerdy friends who can do wonders with their WiFi networks? There’s a good chance those friends have a solid understanding of the words, phrases, abbreviations and acronyms tied to the world of wireless technology and devices.
From Access Points to WPA3, it’s easy to get tangled up in technical terminology—but here’s where this glossary comes in. Becoming familiar with the language of wireless networks has many benefits, including helping us better understand WiFi and connected devices, assisting in communicating and troubleshooting issues and getting the best results from the wireless experience.
Access Point: An access point is a device that establishes a point of access for a wireless signal. Access points function as a secondary location within a network for devices to connect from. While routers serve as the primary network hub in wireless networks—and an access point in itself—these sub-devices are used most commonly to extend the wireless coverage of an existing network and increase the number of devices that can connect to it.
Antenna: Wireless routers contain antennas that radiate and direct the WiFi signals your devices use to connect to the internet. On many routers, antennas are internal, but external antennas can be added to further boost a wireless signal. Overall, antennas play a part in harnessing signal strength and extending its reach.
Bandwidth: Bandwidth refers to the volume of information that can be transmitted through an internet connection at one time. The more bandwidth you have (measured in Megabits (Mbps) and Gigabits (Gbps) per second), the greater capacity you have to support devices. Speed—though related—is not the same as bandwidth. Speed refers to the rate at which data can be exchanged, while bandwidth is the carrying capacity.
Bluetooth: Bluetooth is a short-range wireless technology offering device connectivity for a limited number of devices over small distances (usually up to 30 feet). Bluetooth is similar to WiFi in that it uses radio waves to transfer data, but can’t typically support as many users or devices.
Channel: When you hear the term channel in the context of WiFi, it refers to the medium over which your WiFi network sends and receives information. Routers are designed to operate between many different channels within three main frequency bands (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and most recently, 6 GHz). Similar to lanes on a highway, channels can become congested by more devices. It’s up to your router to avoid channel interference and pick the clearest path for wireless data transmission.
dBm: Stands for decibels per milliwatt. This is the main unit of measurement for WiFi signal strength. You’ll typically see dBm in applications such as WiFi signal scanning apps, which can tell you your signal strength in real time based on your proximity to a wireless access point. Typically, the greater the negative value, the worse the signal is. A signal in the range of -67 to -30 is ideal for most online applications. A value of -30 is generally regarded as the “maximum” signal strength, while -90 indicates a very unreliable signal. In general, the range of -60 to -67 is widely regarded as “good” or “reliable” signal strength.
Ethernet cable: An Ethernet cable—also known as a network cable—is a wire that runs from a modem or router to a device such as a computer, giving devices access to the internet.
Firewall: A firewall is a security application that acts as a gateway into your network. Firewalls monitor incoming and outgoing traffic, allowing or excluding data packets based on security protocols that it is programmed to follow. Many routers have built-in firewalls to serve as a screener between legitimate data and malicious traffic.
Frequency Band: WiFi networks operate on three different frequency bands— 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz and, most recently, 6 GHz. Each frequency has different capabilities when it comes to speed and range. In general, 2.4 GHz can provide coverage over a larger area, but with lower average speeds. The 5 GHz band offers faster speeds but over a shorter range. The latest available band, 6 GHz, is still in the process of being released widely. WiFi 6 operates on the 6GHz band.
G: The letter G deserves an entry for a few important reasons. In the WiFi realm, G pops up in at least a few places, and in each context, the letter holds a separate meaning. From 5G, to 5GHz and 5Gbps, here’s an explanation of the different uses. The term 5G refers to the fifth and latest “Generation” of cellular networks—offering speed upgrades and other advancements over previous generations such as 4G. 5GHz refers to the 5-gigahertz frequency band (see separate entry) that routers use to transmit signals. Finally, 5Gbps stands for 5 gigabits per second, a measure of internet speed.
Guest Network: In wireless networks, a guest network is a network separate from a primary home network. Guest networks, as the name suggests, allow access to the internet, but keep the traffic separate. Guest networks can be set up to limit both the number of users and what information they have access to. A single access point can serve as both a primary network and a guest network.
Hotspot: A hotspot is a physical location, either public or private, from which people can access the internet. Hotspots transmit internet signals wirelessly, allowing devices within range to connect. Hotspots can also refer to a device—such as a smartphone—that can broadcast a WiFi signal.
Internet of Things: The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the massive global network of physical devices that can connect to the internet. IoT includes not only computers, but a fast-growing number of household objects, from TVs, to wearable health monitors, to thermostats, refrigerators, home security systems and much more. IoT devices are built with sensors, software and other technology that allow them to exchange data over the internet.
IP Address: An IP (Internet Protocol) address is a unique identifier—a numeric label—assigned to every device that connects to your internet network. An IP functions like a digital identity card, identifying and locating a device on the network and enabling each device to communicate with each other.
Lag: Lag refers to a slow response from internet service or a device, or a notable decrease in speed. Lag results from things like network congestion, poor signals or inadequate bandwidth.
Latency: This term refers to the time, in milliseconds, it takes for data (a signal or ping) to be transferred from your device to an internet server, and back to the device. Low latency is sought after because it means faster communication between devices and less delay between a command being sent by one device and received by another. Low latency is particularly sought after by online gamers seeking close to real-time response.
LAN: Stands for Local Area Network. A LAN refers to a collection of devices all networked together on the same internet network in a single location. LANs can be made up of a single user and device or sometimes hundreds of users with many devices.
Mesh Network: While traditional routers create a network from a central source, mesh networks use two or more router-like devices to create a decentralized system. They combine wireless access points together to form a single network. There is still a device that connects to the internet, but there are also additional wireless nodes distributed throughout a space, creating a mesh of connectivity. A mesh network could have nodes in several rooms, or just two—as long as the coverage areas overlap.
Modem: A modem is a device that connects your home to the internet. Modems receive and transfer your internet signal from your service provider to your home. Modems then connect to routers, which then allow devices to connect to the internet either wired or wirelessly. Modems can have a router connected to them to enable a wireless connection to the internet for multiple devices.
Ping: Ping (Packet Internet or Inter-Network Groper) refers to a signal exchanged between two devices. (See Latency) Pings are commonly used to test connectivity and troubleshoot internet issues.
Range: Range refers to the reach of the WiFi signal being transmitted from your router. A single router on its own can only broadcast signals so far. Range is easily affected by many factors including physical obstructions, the distance between the router and device and the type of frequency band (either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz) the router is using.
Router: A router, sometimes called a residential gateway, connects your devices to each other and, in hard-wired connection setups, to the modem. The router connects to your modem and then to your devices (laptops, smart TVs, printers, etc.) via either an Ethernet cable or, in the case of a wireless router, WiFi signal. Routers serve as the network command center, allowing an internet connection for multiple devices as well as managing signal traffic and distributing signals to all connected devices on the network.
SSID: The SSID (Service Set Identifier) is simply the name of your wireless network. When you first set up a wireless network, establishing a network name will distinguish your network from others within range of it. While that name can be viewable by other devices that can detect the network, SSIDs are password-protected, restricting access to authorized users.
WAN: Wide Area Network. A WAN is a network of connected devices that extends across a wide geographical area—in other words, not limited to a single location. WANs are often a collection of several Local Area Networks (See LAN) that can communicate with each other and share data.
WiFi: WiFi refers to the technology that allows internet-enabled devices to connect to the internet wirelessly.
WiFi 6: This term refers to the sixth and most current generation of WiFi technology. The wireless industry adopted a new number system to simplify the long-used 802.11 naming standard for WiFi. WiFi 6—and each generation that follows—is being used as a way to help consumers more easily identify compatible routers and equipment for their wireless networks.
WiFi 6—technically 802.11ax—offers superior speeds, range and reliability over WiFi 5 and previous generations.
WPA3: Known as WiFi Protected Access 3, this is the latest and strongest encryption standard for wireless networks. WPA 3 secures WiFi networks by encrypting wireless data. WPA3 follows WPA2, WPA and WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy), with each new generation offering tighter security and stronger encryption.
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