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WiFi explained: what it is and how it works

01 June 2022

You’ve heard the term WiFi but do you understand exactly how it works and how to use it? We explain in plain English all you need to know about WiFi, plus share tips on keeping secure on a shared network.

Using wifi on tablet in cafe
Setting up a WiFi connection is easy

The term WiFi stands for Wireless Fidelity, but really just means wireless internet.

Most of us have grown accustomed to being able to access the internet wirelessly on our laptops and mobile devices. But how does the internet reach us without a wired connection?

Basically, a WiFi connection can be compared to a radio. When we want to listen to a radio station, we tune in to a specific radio frequency carried by the station. If a transmitter is within range, we get a clear signal and no distortion. 

As we move out of range of the transmitter, the signal becomes scratchy and finally all we get is static.

How does WiFi work?

The two most important components of a wireless computer are the wireless adapter in the computer and the wireless router. 

The router is the device that picks up WiFi signals from wireless transmission towers and the adapter in the computer allows the signal to be decoded and transferred to the computer via a radio signal.

Although mobile phones, tablets and other mobile devices don’t have visible router antennae, they work in a similar manner.

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What is a WiFi hotspot?

A WiFi ‘hotspot’ is a location that has a wireless router tuned to a specific frequency.

Free WiFi is everywhere. From train stations, coffee shops and even supermarkets – the ability to connect your laptop, smartphone or iPad to a free public Wi-Fi network can keep you online while on the go.

Hotspots have a limited range, but they usually extend beyond the hotspot’s physical location. In order to limit use to customers, a password is needed to access the hotspot’s router.

While hotspots are usually thought of as existing in commercial premises, if you have a wireless router in your home, it acts as a personal hotspot, allowing you and others with your password to use WiFi-enabled devices anywhere in the house or within range of the router.

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Setting up your WiFi connection

Once you have the necessary hardware, setting up your WiFi connection is easy.

First, make sure your wireless router is turned on. Then find your WiFi settings. 

On an iPad, they will be under Settings/WiFi. On a Windows computer, they will be under Control Panel/Network Connections/Wireless Network Connection. Right click “Properties,” choose the hotspot you want to connect to and enter the password provided by management.

WiFi connections are also available on smartphones. If you have a 3G- or 4G-enabled smartphone, it’s a good idea to make a habit of connecting to a WiFi hotspot when you have the opportunity.

When you use your phone’s connection, it will use your data and cost you money, whereas the hotspot connection is free.

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Keep yourself secure on a WiFi hotspot

Using WiFi in public places is convenient, but there are some security risks involved. Here are some tips to help you stat protected.

1. Use recognised WiFi networks

Anyone can set up a fake Wi-Fi network with a convincing name, so ensure you know the actual name of the genuine network you want to connect to. That way, you’ll avoid bogus Wi-Fi networks designed to scam you.

2. Be careful what sites you visit

Be careful which sites you visit and what data you transmit over public wi-fi. Avoid using public WiFi for banking, email, photos or any data sharing, or anything that requires you to enter a password.

3. Always use secure sites

If you do need to log in to an online account using public WiFi, always type the URL directly into the web browser address bar and ensure the connection is encrypted. Look for a padlock in the web browser address bar and a web address beginning with the prefix ‘https’ to be sure. Use a free web browser extension, such as HTTPS Everywhere, which will direct you to the secure versions of websites (if there is a secure version).

When you’re finished visiting a site that requires your password, remember to log out of your account.

4. Use two-step authentication

Use two-step authentication for logging into your account – as offered by Gmail, Twitter and Facebook. This typically involves a code sent to your mobile phone that you need to enter to log into the account.

That way, even if someone hacks your password, the extra security layer will prevent them from opening your accounts.

5. Don’t download software

As tempting as it is to download applications, for maximum security avoid doing this on public WiFi. It’s harder to be sure of the source of the app, which could hide a virus or spyware.

6. Keep up-to-date

Make sure your operating system, web browser and anti-virus programs are up-to-date with the latest versions - but only download and install updates when on your home or work network.

7. Turn on your firewall

Make sure your computer’s firewall is turned on to stop hackers connecting to your computer or iPad. To do this in Windows, go to Control Panel, and on Mac OS go to System Preferences.

By default, Windows Firewall hides your computer from others on the same network. Mac users can access this extra protection by clicking 'Firewall Options' on the 'Firewall' tab and selecting 'Enable Stealth Mode'.

8. Turn off file sharing

File sharing can leave your computer vulnerable to hackers, so turn this option off before using public WiFi.

In Windows, go to Control Panel > Network and Internet > Network and Sharing Center, and then click 'Change Advanced Sharing Settings'. In OS X, open System Preferences > Sharing.

9. Forget this network option

Make use of your laptop or device’s ‘forget this network’ option to stop it from automatically reconnecting to a wi-fi hotspot without your permission.

In Windows, untick the 'Connect Automatically' box next to the WiFi network name. To prevent it happening in the future, click the WiFi name in the 'Network and Sharing Centre', then click 'Wireless Properties' and untick 'Connect automatically when this network is in range'.

On a Mac, go to 'Network' in System Preferences and click 'Advanced' in the wi-fi section, then untick 'Remember networks this computer has joined'.

For iPhone or iPad, tap 'Settings', select 'Wi-Fi networks' and click the ‘I’ icon next to the network name and choose 'Forget this network'.

10. Set up a virtual private network (VPN)

It may sound technical, but it’s possible to create your own private virtual network. Called a VPN, this routes your data through an encrypted private network, keeping your activity and data safe even when using public WiFi. You can buy VPN services for laptops and mobile devices.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.