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What Wi-Fi Really Is (And What It Isn't)

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Hint: It has absolutely nothing to do with Internet connectivity.

Today, I'd like to acknowledge the fact that despite the vast number of Internet users in the world, a good majority of them are quite dumb. Not dumb in general, but not especially smart in the way they approach technology terminology. For those of us who were around in the 80s and 90s, confusing computer networking technology would be a disgrace, but for the unlucky generation born after 2000, not much can be said for them. Let's look at a few ways that young people today, especially teenagers and college students, manage to screw things up.

First off, let me talk about the most common misconception. The Internet and the World Wide Web are not the same thing. The World Wide Web is a relatively recent development, while the Internet has been around for a long, long time. Before you can understand what the Internet is, you need to know what a network is. A network is simply a collection of computers. At your school, your school network comprises of all the computers in your school or district. At home, it is simply all the computers in your home. A network can have just one computer, or it can have a million computers. You typically need to be connected to a network in order to access the Internet, but it is possible to access the Internet without a network, as we will see later.

The Internet is simply a very large network — the largest network in the world. It is the network of networks — and the word "Internet" literally means "between networks". While an appropriate description, the proper term back in the day was "InterNetwork", which later became shortened to "Internet". So what does this have to do with the World Wide Web?

The World Wide Web is just one aspect of the Internet. The Internet is a collection of networks, but the World Wide Web is a collection of web servers on the Internet. You can think of a parent-child relationship where the World Wide Web is just one of the children of the Internet. Other parts of the Internet include Peer-To-Peer, email (real email, not webmail), telnet, etc... Any application on your computer that shares information with other computers probably uses the Internet too — for example, if you have Dropbox installed on your computer, it connects to the Internet to sync your files with their website.

The World Wide Web is what you typically access through a web browser, such as Internet Explorer. In the past, many people thought of Internet Explorer as "the Internet" because it was the most popular web browser of its time and as usual, computer novices didn't care much for the distinction between the Internet and the World Wide Web. The World Wide Web is a collection of webpages, hosted on computers called webservers. Every computer in the world connected to the Internet, including the webserver and your computer, are assigned an IP address, short for "Internet Protocol." If you haven't noticed by now, you can probably realize that nobody "owns" the Internet. The Internet doesn't exist anywhere — it is everywhere and it is nowhere. It's neither here nor there, but everywhere. Every computer in the world connected to the Internet is a small part of the Internet, and to take out the Internet would be small-talk for destroying every computer online.

Each computer uses an IP address so they can "talk" to each other. If you wanted to send a "packet" of information to a computer in London, how would your computer know which computer to send the information too? For this reason, every computer connected to the Internet has a unique IP address. The DNS, or Domain Name System, is an extension of this protocol, layering user-friendly language on top of this system. For example is the IP address for www.google.com. But imagine having to type in that address every time you wanted to visit that website. Think of how many websites you visit on a daily basis, and imagine having to memorize the IP addresses for all of them. This is precisely why the DNS was invented, and now human friendly names, like www.microsoft.com can be assigned to IP addresses. That's all the DNS really is — it's relatively easy to understand. To find out the IP address for a website, you can use the command-line and use the "ping" command to return an IP address. For example, typing "ping www.google.com" in the Command Prompt returned the IP address for www.google.com. Before you get too excited, bear in mind that the IP addresses may change for some websites, depending on if you have a static or dynamic IP address. Furthermore, a single IP address may host more than one website. This is why the DNS makes it easy to always return to the same website.

Let's go back to the WWW. Netscape Navigator was phased out by Internet Explorer, and today we have a whole host of web browsers. A web browser is a graphical user-interface, or shell for webpages. It simply renders the code for webpages and then returns them in an appealing layout. There's more to this, as you'll discover when you touch up on Web Development, but for now, that's all you need to know. Today, the most popular web browsers are Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, and Google Chrome. In addition, there are countless others, but remember that they are all similar by nature in their purpose, and it is possible, with a lot of work, to create your own web browser (but that is beyond the scope of this article).

Because we generally access the World Wide Web through a browser, we think of our Internet browser(s) as a gateway to the World Wide Web. In recent years, many people have dropped technologies like email, instead moving to alternatives like webmail. Yes, they're both email in a nutshell, but email is really completely separate from the WWW. A client like Microsoft Outlook is traditionally used to connect to an email server on the Internet and enables you to send and receive mail. There is no connection to the WWW at all. Lately, more people are using more than one computer, and web-mail presents a solution. Webmail clients, like Outlook.com, Yahoo Mail, and Gmail to name a few, are mail clients you access through a web browser on the World Wide Web. You can still access them in an email client without using the WWW — but if you use the web-based interface, then you are using the WWW. Therefore, the line between the World Wide Web and the Internet has blurred lately, but these is still a distinct difference.

Hopefully you now understand what the difference between the WWW and the Internet is now — the Internet is the medium that we use to transfer information between computers — in other words, it doesn't really "exist" anywhere, it's simply the connection between every computer in the world connected to the Internet. By connecting your computer to the Internet, you are connecting it to a very large network containing every other computer on the Internet in the world.

So, here's the second stupid notion that people have persisted on — Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is relatively new, and although thought to be short for "Wireless-Fidelity", really doesn't mean anything. But, in a world where desktop computers are no longer the only computers, this term has become increasingly popular, but let me tell you why most of us, and perhaps you, are wrong. Wi-Fi is not the Internet. Wi-Fi is not the World Wide Web. Wi-Fi is not your network. Wi-Fi is not your router. Wi-Fi is not your modem, nor is it any type of computer. Wi-Fi is a connection medium, and a very crude one at that. But before you understand what Wi-Fi is, you need to understand what the world of computers was like before Wi-Fi.

When computers first became mainstream, there was not a relatively profound concept of computer networking. There was no Internet, and there weren't that many computer networks. Most businesses that used them have a few computers, and most homes didn't even have one for their lack of purpose. Computers were bulky and large, and they performed very simple tasks. But computing evolved. Eventually we got the point where you could play games on them and you could type up documents... and you could print them. When computers were first conceived, it was thought our paper consumption would decrease. Obviously, today we consume more paper then ever, mostly because we feel an urge to print all of our Word documents. But how did printing bring about computer networking? While not entirely responsible, printing was a major reason for computer network. Back then, a printer had to be connected to every single computer that needed the ability to print documents. Because computers couldn't communicate to each other, they needed to each be connected individually to their own printer, which meant that if a business had 30 computers, they needed 30 printers as well and the space to put them. Talk about a waste! The alternative was having one computer in your business connected to a printer, and then having employees print their documents from that dedicated computer. But how would they get their files onto that computer? With the invention of the floppy disk drive, especially the 3.5 inch variant that is still lingering today, users could save documents onto a floppy disk and move them between any computer with a floppy disk drive. This became known as "sneaker-net" because of the method of transport. However, this wasn't ideal. Floppy disks couldn't hold more then a few megabytes of information, if that, and if the floppy disk was damaged, your data was lost. Many users wanted to continue using their hard disk drive to save their data, which at the time was the most reliable medium for saving data. (Speaking of which, did you know that most computers back then could only store a few gigabytes of information? Today, most new computers can store at least one terabyte, or 1,024 gigabytes!)

Computer networking revolutionized the way we shared resources. By connected computers together into a network, 30 computers could simply share one printer. Likewise, users could transfer files between computers without the need of a floppy disk. But how were these computers connected?

While a number of cables and connected were used, there are four especially important ones you need to know about. First is the coaxial cable. Today, coaxial cable is primarily used in audio/video equipment, and it is the cable that runs between your cable box and the jack in the wall. It is also what connects your modem to your wall jack. Second is the unshielded twisted pair (henceforth UTP) cable, the most important cable for computer networking today. (Unshielded twisted pair cables are frequently erroneously referred to as "Ethernet cables". But Ethernet refers to the topology and not the physical cable medium; technically coaxial cables can be "Ethernet cables" too. To distinguish these from modern modular phone cables, which are also unshielded twisted pair, you can refer to them as Cat5 or better (usually phone wiring is Cat3 or worse) or simply call it a LAN cable.) Typically blue, but available in any color, this cable connects computers together on a network to a central switch or router. Third is the telephone line, which was traditionally used to connect telephones to a wall jack that was directly connected to the telephone company. And fourth we have the fiber-optic cable, which is still relatively new, relatively expense, and not yet widespread. Let's talk about the differences between these.

When the Internet was invented a long time ago in the 1960s, it comprised of a relatively small collection of computers of the world's largest universities. As Internet usage expanded to businesses and finally filtered through to regular folks, we needed an easy way to get online. Thus, dial-up networking was created. A dial-up Internet connection works like this: your plug a telephone line into your computer — because most households only had one telephone, this meant that whenever you wanted to go online, you couldn't use the telephone, and vice versa. At the time, there were only a small handful of websites, and most people didn't yet use email. Internet connections were typically very slow, about 56 kilobytes per second (Today, most homes have a connection of 25,000 kilobytes per second and businesses have a connection of about 250,000 kilobytes per second!) Once your telephone line was plugged in, you opened the Dial-Up software on your computer and "dialed" a special number — not just any telephone number, but a special one given to you by your ISP, or Internet Service Provider. You would establish a connection with that number, login with the software, and you would then have access to the Internet. But telephones communicate using analog signals, whereas computers communicate using digital signals. How did we fix this? Why, by using a modem of course! A modem would convert the computer's digital signals to analog signals that would then be sent over the telephone line, and then convert the analog signals it received over the telephone line to digital signals that the computer could understand. Today, dial-up internet is still used by a handful of people around the world, mostly those who live in rural areas without broadband Internet but still have telephone service. With a broadband connection, the Internet connection is no long between your computer's modem and your ISP, but between your router and your ISP. The router still communicates through a broadband modem to the ISP, but modems serve a vastly different purpose these days. You can still connect your computer to the internet without using a network by plugging your computer directly into a modem that is then connected directly to the Internet, but most people don't do that anymore. The primary reason is security — having a router offers protection to any computers that are on that network. And secondly because having a network enhances the computing experience. Computers on a network connect to each other using UTP cables. After all, they need to communicate somehow. Wiring is typically run through walls and ceilings, so don't feel bad if you've never seen wires running all over the place before — they're there, in the same way your electrical outlets receive power from your circuit breaker.

Today, UTP cables comprise a networks internal structure. An UTP cable connects a router and switch to the modem. However, coaxial cable still connects your cable modem to your Internet Service provider (or simply a different category of UTP cable connects your DSL modem if you have DSL). I won't tell you why, but it's important that you understand and know the proper terminology. You can look up pictures of these various cables, and once you do you'll probably see what I mean (so that's what the cable is for!).

I'm not going to talk about fiber-optic cables, mostly because they aren't that important right now. But hopefully you now have a better understanding of networking and how it's done. As you've learned, computers communicate with each other by being connected to networks, and to connected to each other you need to use cabling. But, we can't just use whatever cabling we want — so computer manufacturers have set the de facto for networking as the UTP cable, which comes in several flavors. Cat 5 is the most common type today, but Cat 6 is the top-grade tier. Today, UTP cables still connect desktop computers directly to the network. After all, it's alright to use UTP cables for a desktop because you don't take it anywhere. But what about laptops? With the emergence of portable computers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Wi-Fi became a popular solution for this dilemma, which meant you no longer had to connect to a network with an UTP cable trailing on the floor wherever you went. Today, it's all the rage among teenagers and young adults, but for the wrong reasons. First of all, now that you know how computers connect to each other with cables, you probably know what Wi-Fi is — all it is just an alternative for connecting to your network with a cable, instead of a physical connection, you use a wireless connection either directly to the router or with a wireless access point. You need to understand that "Wi-Fi" is not connecting to the Internet. What's going on is your computer, if capable of using Wi-Fi, will see a list of Wi-Fi "networks" in the area. These aren't really networks either — calling it as such is a gross simplification. There are several things that might be going on. Your modem is connected to your router, which is ideally connected to a switch that has one cable for every computer in the building. Large organizations will need many switches and large swithes at that. The routers you see today in homes are misleading. They are wireless routers and routers combined. Ideally, when wireless technology started gaining steam, organizations that decided to adopt this technology plugged a wireless router or wireless access point into their switch. It became an extension of their existing network. In most homes, there are only a few computers. So companies that manufactured routers for consumers decided to combines the two, and create a router that acted as a router and a wireless router so you didn't need to buy two pieces of hardware. It was essentially a router with a built in wireless access point. In addition, it also acts as a switch since it has a few UTP ports in the back, so it's really a 3-in-1 router.

We know that Wi-Fi is the wireless alternative to a wired connection into a network, but there's a little bit more to that. Every computer on a network with an UTP connection, which will be all of your desktop computers and perhaps some of your laptops, has a dedicated line directly to the switch. But with Wi-Fi, it would be foolhardy to install one wireless router or access point for every device on the network. You can start to see why Wi-Fi is not an optimal solution — a desktop computer will have a line directly to the router all to itself, but if there are 5 devices connected to a Wireless Access Point, then there would be 5 devices sharing one connection to the router. Not only that, but wireless mediums are much slow, much more insecure, and much more inefficient than wired mediums, which means that your quality of networking becomes very low when using wireless solutions. It's the reason that you'll notice a huge improvement in connection speed to the network when your plug an UTP cable into your laptop.

Let's go back to so-called "Wi-Fi routers". When you connect to a wireless router (more properly a SOHO, or small-office-home-office router), or a router with a switch and an access point built in, you aren't connecting a network. This is the biggest misconception of all. You are literally connecting to the wireless access point itself, and that is it. In turn, you also gain access to any resources that the wireless access point itself has access to. What does this mean? It's entirely possible to plug a wireless router into an outlet in the middle of nowhere and turn it on, and it will work just fine and do everything it's supposed to. If you connect to it, you won't be connected to any network (and by extension to the Internet), for the simple reason that the wireless access point isn't connected to anything. But at your school, business, or home, your wireless access point is connected to a switch (potentially one part of a multifunctional SOHO router). And if your SOHO router has a switch, then you've sort of got a network setup going there. There is absolutely no connection between Wi-Fi and your local area network (LAN) and the Internet. Unlike the Internet and the WWW, none of these are related at all in a network setup. If you replace a wireless router with an UTP cable in your head, it becomes easy to understand. A network must contain wired equipment, but doesn't need wireless equipment for obvious reasons. If you plug an UTP cable into your desktop and don't connect the other end to anything, what are you connected to? Nothing — this is the same as connecting to a wireless access pointer or router. But what if you plug the UTP cable into an UTP jack which runs to a switch on your LAN managed by a router that other computers are connected to? Now, this is the same as connecting a computer via Wi-Fi to a network. And what your router was connected to a modem that was connected to your ISP. Now, you have an Internet connection. But hopefully you realize the difference between these technologies and how they differ.

You should know by now that Wi-Fi has nothing to do with the Internet. Wi-Fi is a connection medium. But let's wrap things up here by talking about that. Wi-Fi is all the rage these days, but is there a good reason for it? The answer is portability, and that is the only answer. In the technology world, one thing that has been proven true is the superiority of wired technology over wireless technology. Using a wire is better than sending wireless airwaves through the air, and I'm sure you have an idea why. First off, wires offer greater speed. Secondly, wires are more secure. With a wireless router, you don't need to physically connect to it to connect the resources that the wireless router may be connected to. With a wired-only network, the only way you can gain access to it is physically connecting to it with a cable. Finally, there is reliability. You can see why people who care about security or reliability shouldn't use wireless technology. The only reason to use wireless technology, the ONLY reason, is if you need to be portable. This is why desktop computers don't, won't, and shouldn't support wireless technology. Because you aren't taking them anywhere, it wouldn't make any sense to connect it to a network and/or the Internet using Wi-Fi. This is the explanation for a number of things — it's the reason that landline telephones are better than mobile phones, it's why desktop computers are better than laptops, and it's why wired security systems are better than wireless security systems. Hopefully, now that you've gained an appreciation for these concepts, you can apply them in the real-world starting now. For one thing, when someone says "they need Wi-Fi", that's almost definitely not what they mean. What they mean is "I need a network connection" or "I need Internet access" or both. While internet usage is becoming overly popular, the LAN is not dead and will never be dead. Having a LAN will always be more important than having an internet connection, whether you like it or not. But saying "I need Wi-Fi" is incorrect. That's like saying "I need the bus" when you are trying to go to the movies. No, you need to go to the movies, and it doesn't matter all that much how you get there, as long as you get there. Wi-Fi is just one way of connecting computers and computer hardware together, and don't forget that. If you ever hear people say "There's no Wi-Fi here" or "I want Wi-Fi" or something of the like, laugh with me and tell them to stop staying stupid things.

For more information, you can see this article. Also see our blog post on fiber-optics.

There is also a companion video to go along with this article — watch it here.

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