Virtually everyone in contemporary society makes use of Wi-Fi at some point or another over the course of their everyday lives. This is especially true of college students. The purpose of the present sample essay provided by Ultius is to discuss the nature and functioning of the technology known as Wi-Fi.
The Nature of Wi-Fi
The essay will have four parts.
- The first part will describe the way that Wi-Fi functions.
- The second part will discuss the nature of the Internet itself, as this is essential for understanding the functioning of Wi-Fi.
- The third part will consider some recent technological innovations in the area of Wi-Fi.
- The fourth part will reflect on some of the moral implications that may be relevant to the technology of Wi-Fi within the nation.
How Wi-Fi works
At the most basic level, the functioning of Wi-Fi is probably at least somewhat familiar to anyone who has ever used a radio or a walkie talkie. Wi-Fi essentially refers to the technology that enables one to access the Internet in a wireless way, without plugging in one’s device to any cable or socket of any kind. As Pullen has commented, the achievement known as Wi-Fi
“is basically done with radio waves, though it’s a little more complicated than your car stereo. Unlike the FM receiver in your car, Wi-Fi is essentially two radios communicating back and forth that use lower power and broadcast over a much shorter distance” (paragraph 4).
In principle, then, the technology underlying Wi-Fi is not different from the technology underlying the radio or any other kind of electronic transmission (including television), insofar as all of these technologies fundamentally make use of radio waves. Wi-Fi is different though, in its capacity to transmit large amounts of customized information across space in limited time.
The way that a given laptop computer finds a Wi-Fi signal is in fact very similar to the way that a standard radio finds a station. In truth, it is all just a matter of tuning in to the right signal. As Brandon has put it:
“a computer can tell the difference between the frequency of Wi-Fi, which is 2.4 or 5GHz . . . and the much lower frequency of FM radio running at 88 to 108MHz “ (paragraph 3).
In other words, Wi-Fi exists on the same quantitative spectrum of radiation as radio waves—or for that matter, even visual color. But Wi-Fi detects waves that are specific to the technology of Wi-Fi. Since these waves are much larger than the waves that are transmitted or received by ordinary radio, they are also able to carry much larger quantities of information.
For example, whereas an FM radio would only be able to carry an audio transmission, a Wi-Fi connection may be able to carry an entire movie downloaded from iTunes, with both audio and visual feedback.
In order to access a Wi-Fi network, two main things are necessary. The first is the relevant hardware on the computer itself, and the second is a terminal that the computer can use in order to access cyberspace. The first criterion is not generally a problem. As WebWise Team (2012) has pointed out,
“computers—mainly laptops—increasingly have built-in Wi-Fi receivers” (paragraph 10).
This is based on the basic facts that the vast majority of computer users need access to the Internet, and that laptops are meant to be used on the go. The main issue, then, usually has to do with finding a terminal that enables one to actually connect with the Internet. Many cafes, restaurants, and other venues have begun to offer free connections to their patrons; and many others merely require the input of a simple password before one has access to the local server.
Yet others (at places such as airports) request a fee before one is able to make use of the server. In all these cases, the technology of Wi-Fi remains constant; the only thing that really changes is the level of restriction placed on access to a given network.
Where is the internet?
Thus far, it has been stated that when a person uses Wi-Fi, he successfully connects his own computer to the Internet. But this begs the question: what, exactly, is the Internet? This is a much more difficult question than it may initially seem. This is because from the perspective of any individual user’s experience, the Internet is a “place”: it is the place that a person goes when he opens up a web browser and types something into the search bar.
The actual truth of the matter, though, is that the Internet is not a place at all. Rather, the Internet is actually a relationship: more specifically, the network of relationships constituted by the interactions between various computers on the planet. The actual information found on the Internet—webpages, news articles, and so on—are actually stored on one computer or another in the world. When a person goes online through Wi-Fi, what he actually does is send a request a computer with the relevant Internet information to send that information to his own computer.
Frankk has written the following about this subject:
“Internet is not a single entity or a central repository; instead it’s a network of different types of computer systems. These computer systems range from a simple desktop PC to a complex web server, in terms of functionality and architecture” (paragraph 3).
In principle, though, the difference between these different kinds of computers is one of degree, and not of kind. Technologically, speaking, a “web server” is just a normal computer, just like the computers used by the vast majority of people within modern society. The only difference is that the web server is a specific kind of computer that is loaded with the software required to receive requests from around the world, and then provide the requesting computers (i.e. individual students’ own computers) with the information that has been requested.
To access the Internet, then, is fundamentally to connect one’s own computer with a specialized computer on somewhere on the planet that has the information that one would like to access.
According to information provided by Bruner, some of the largest Internet data storage centers on the planet exist in the geographical areas of: Chicago, Atlanta, Florida, Wales, Dublin, Phoenix, San Antonio, and Las Vegas. That is, the data centers present in these geographical areas constitute some of the primary material bases of the Internet as it is currently known.
Again, the “Internet” itself is not a material thing; rather, the term refers to a network of relations between a vast number of computers. When a person accesses the Internet, then, he essentially creates a link between his own computer and a computer that is stored in one of these massive data centers somewhere on the planet (primarily in America and Europe). The web sever computer possesses the requested information; and when that information is requested by a personal computer, it is transmitted from the web server computer to the personal computer. This process is what is commonly known as loading a webpage.
Wi-Fi, then, is essentially a radio connection established between a personal computer and a web server computer. Again, Wi-Fi is a way of accessing the Internet, and the Internet itself is nothing other the web of relations and interactions between the various computers that exist on the planet. Conceptually, there is no difference between Wi-Fi and a more old-fashioned plug-in modality of accessing the Internet.
Either way, radio waves would need to be transmitted in order to connect one’s own computer with the relevant web server computer, somewhere on the planet. The main difference is simply a pragmatic one. That is: if a person has Wi-Fi, he will be able to go online from anywhere within the Wi-Fi’s range of service, as opposed to needing to plug his computer into a wall somewhere in his room. While this is surely very convenient, it is also a relatively minor innovation, from the perspective of the big picture.
Recent developments in the internet world
One of the most recent developments in the area of Wi-Fi has consisted of efforts to make Wi-Fi proliferate across the nation, and thereby rendering it less of a private good than a natural and national resource. Interestingly, there are eminently for-profit motives why various businesses would support such a development. As Probasco has written: from the perspective of companies such as Google and Microsoft,
“a free nationwide Wi-Fi network means more business and more customers for them” (paragraph 7).
The more that people who are able to get online, the more that companies who specialize in online services and products will be able to expand their potential markets. To make Wi-Fi universal within the nation would mean that all people across the nation, anywhere and everywhere, would be able to establish radio connections between their own computers and web server computers, and thereby access the Internet.
The Google Fiber project is one especially notable initiative for bring entire American cities online. The network being developed by Google is faster than the average Internet connection by a factor of about 100, and Google is also making a name by itself by providing free access to this network to public institutions. As Fung has somewhat cynically pointed out, though:
“While smaller cities may find it necessary to attract investment by wooing influential companies, denser metropolitan areas aren’t likely to prostate themselves in quite the same way. They probably couldn’t even if they wanted to” (paragraph 9).
The idea here is that whereas smaller cities may be able to rather straightforwardly be able to invite Google to develop the Internet infrastructure within their limits, larger cities are characterized by far more complex conflicts of interests and may thus present a difficulty for companies such as Google that are attempting to carry out city-wide projects. One way or the other, though, the enhancement of Wi-Fi access within the United States is clearly a part of the contemporary zeitgeist.
Moral implications of Wi-Fi
Given the very nature of Wi-Fi and the Internet, an important moral issue that emerges has to do with privacy and confidentiality. More specifically: any private information that people store online is literally being stored at other physical locations (i.e. the web server computers around the planet)—which means that efforts would need to be taken to ensure the security and integrity of those computers.
As Marsden has indicated on the basis of personal experience, some of these web servers are located in some of the most sophisticated and secure places on the planet, within the equivalent of bank vaults that would be more or less immune even to nuclear holocaust. In principle, though, the average Internet user cannot exactly know where his own personal information is being stored, or where the information he is accessing at any given moment has been stored. Web backup services are increasingly beginning to advertise the security credentials of their own private web servers.
In principle, the main moral issue regarding Wi-Fi may have to do with the fact that most people are not even aware that potential exists could exist. From the Internet user’s perspective, information just magically appears on his own computer’s screen. The real technologies and exchanges of information involved, though, are clearly far more complex than that.
In summary, the present essay has discussed the nature and functioning of Wi-Fi. The essay began by discussing the technology of Wi-Fi itself; but this then necessarily opened onto to a general consideration of the nature of the Internet itself. After the proper perspective had been established, the essay proceeded to consider recent innovations regarding Wi-Fi; and finally, it reflected on moral implications relevant to the technology. A key suggestion that can be made here is perhaps that users should develop greater awareness of the material bases of the Internet.
Brandon, John. “How Does a Wi-Fi Signal Work?” Mental Floss. n.d. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. .
Bruner, Jon. “Where the World’s Data Is Stored.” Forbes. 19 Jul. 2011. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. infographic/>.
Frankk, David. “Where Is All the Data on the Internet Stored?” Examiner. 19 Mar. 2013. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. .
Fung, Brian. “Here’s Why Big Cities Aren’t Getting Google Fiber Anytime Soon.” Washington Post. 20 Feb. 2014. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. switch/wp/2014/02/20/heres-why-big-cities-arent-getting-google-fiber-anytime-soon/>.
Marsden, Rhodri. “Secret Servers: Where Is Our Digital Data Stored?” Independent. 6 Aug. 2008. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. .
Probasco, Jim. “Google Might Be Planning Free Nationwide Wi-Fi Since the FFC Isn’t.” Forbes. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. might-be-planning-free-nationwide-wi-fi-since-the-fcc-isnt/>.
Pullen, John Patrick. “Here’s How Wi-Fi Actually Works.” Time. 24 Apr. 2015. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. .
WebWise Team. “What Is Wireless Internet (Wi-Fi)? BBC. 10 Oct. 2012. Web. 31 Jul. 2015. .