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The Nuts and Bolts of Over-the-Road Wi-Fi

To put it very simply, Wi-Fi uses a two-way radio signal instead of wires to complete the connection between your computer and the wired connection to the Internet. Also, instead of using slow dialup, the business end of a wireless Internet connection is usually high-speed DSL, cable, or T-1 line.

CB radios for computers

Sometime in the late '50s or early '60s, a couple of truckers stuck CB radios in their rigs so they could irritate each other while heading down the highway. Obviously, for radio communication to occur, both drivers had to install radios — and each radio had to be capable of both transmitting and receiving a signal. Such is the case with Wi-Fi.

A few of the attributes and elements of Wi-Fi radios are as follows:

  • Transceiver: The ability to both transmit and receive as well as the ability to set and determine the circumstances under which each task is to be performed.
  • Antenna: As with a CB radio, the antenna must be capable of both receiving and transmitting a signal in a specific bandwidth. Most antennas are integrated into wireless cards, but in some cases, it's possible to add an external antenna.
  • Code/Decode: Known as a codec, this is the method by which (among other things) digital data is converted into a radio signal and vice versa.
  • Spread-spectrum signal: High-frequency radio signals used by Wi-Fi are both low-powered and susceptible to interference. Wide-band, spread-spectrum radio signals aren't as sensitive to interference as narrow-band signals — and they're quite efficient at getting the most out of the limited power. They also help in avoiding traffic jams among radio signals, which makes it possible for several Wi-Fi transceivers to operate at the same time.

What the heck is a hotspot?

The basic definition of a hotspot is a wireless local-access network (WLAN) that's open to the public. So, what, you ask, is a WLAN? It is nothing more than two or more computers networked together using Wi-Fi. There are two primary types of WLANs:

  • Ad-hoc: Also known as peer-to-peer networks, computers in an ad-hoc WLAN communicate with each other directly. By switching your Wi-Fi cards to ad-hoc mode, you and a nearby neighbor can create a WLAN to play games, for example.
  • Infrastructure: This is the type of WLAN all hotspots use. It's also the most commonly used form of WLAN in home or business and is sometimes referred to as a client-server WLAN. There are two basic elements to an infrastructure WLAN.

Client: Any computer included in the WLAN, accessing the Internet via the access point, is known as a client.

Access point: An access point is a Wi-Fi transceiver that's connected directly or by satellite to the Internet. The access point serves, or distributes, the Internet connection to the client computers within the network.

    Hotspots are WLANs open to the public, but you typically need to provide a password before you can open a hotspot's gateway to the Internet. You can think of an access point like a castle that freely drops the drawbridge over the moat, allowing entry into the gateway tunnel, but opening the gate to the interior only after the visitor gives the proper password.
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