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What is a WAN Network?

A WAN (Wide Area Network) connects devices across vast distances, enabling communication and data sharing between offices and individuals worldwide. It's the digital superhighway that powers global connectivity, from internet browsing to international business operations. Think of it as the expansive network that makes the world smaller and more accessible. How does this network impact your daily life? Let's examine its far-reaching effects.
R. Kayne
R. Kayne

A Wide Area Network (WAN) is a communication network made up of computers that are non-local to one another, exchanging data across a wide area or great distance. The most common example is the Internet, though a WAN need not be global to qualify as a wide area network. Since computer acronyms have become virtual words, the terminology “WAN network” is often used in the public sector, even though redundant. For those new to these acronyms, adding the word “network” can be a reminder of what a WAN is, so while this article uses the common term, the proper term is WAN, pronounced like ran with a “W.”

Computers interoperate on a WAN network by using a set of standards or protocols for communication. Each computer on the WAN is assigned a unique address known as an Internet Protocol (IP) address. When a computer sends a request out on the WAN network, it gets routed to a specific server that hosts the requested information. The server responds by sending the information back to the IP address of the requesting computer.

A wireless router with a cord plugged into the WAN port.
A wireless router with a cord plugged into the WAN port.

The architecture of the Internet, the most familiar WAN, is non-centralized by design, making it nearly impossible to destroy. Like a freeway system in a large metropolis, if one freeway or information highway is taken out, data traffic is automatically re-routed around the breakdown through alternate routes. The highways, in the case of the Internet, are actually leased telephone lines and a combination of other technologies and structures including smaller networks that are linked by the WAN network to become part of the whole.

Some examples of smaller networks in the WAN include Municipal Area Networks (MANs), Campus Area Networks (CANs) and Local Area Networks (LANs). MANs provide connectivity throughout a city or regional area for public access to the Internet, while CANs offer connectivity to students and faculty for on-site resources and online access. LANs can be either private or public, but are usually private networks with optional online access. The home or office network is a good example of a LAN.

A LAN can also become a WAN if, for example, a company with headquarters in both Los Angeles and Chicago links their two LANs together over the Internet. This geographic distance would qualify the network as a WAN. The linked LANs can use encryption software to keep their communications private from the public Internet, creating a Virtual Private Network (VPN). This technology of creating a secure, encrypted channel through the Internet to link LANs is sometimes called tunneling.

A Personal Area Network (PAN) is created by Bluetooth technology to wirelessly link personal devices together for interoperability. You might use Bluetooth to send print jobs from a laptop to a printer, for example, or to synchronize a personal digital assistant with your computer. Bluetooth can also be used to share Internet access between devices, and therefore also plays a part in the many technologies that can contribute to a WAN network, more properly known as a WAN.

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Discussion Comments


One interesting part about the use of wide area networks is the fact that often the term is only applied to wired connections that include the use of fiber optics and other means of long distance data transfer. The reality is that we are constantly surrounded by the WAN of cell phone and mobile device operating companies. The wireless wan networks that flow over the airwaves transfer digital data to and from our smart phones and laptops. This long distance travel might seem different then how the internet operates but the reality is that most of these mobile data networks are simply extensions of the internet into the wireless waves that permeate our cities. If you are lucky enough to live in a metropolitan area that offers the latest generation of data services then you will get the full benefit of a wireless wan network and the mobile opportunities for productivity that it provides.


@FrogFriend, I actually think that the use of acronyms in technology related fields makes it much easier to converse about the subjects being discussed. Sure, if you do not know what the acronym means then you will be lost any time it is referenced but common terms like WAN for wide area network are very easy to pick up and most anyone who has worked around computers can tell you that it is one of the more common terms used.

Just because the term itself is easy to remember or understand what it means doesn't mean that the task and job it has is anything near simple. These very complicated devices have been developed over years of research to help create the best and most efficient tool. Anytime you use network hardware that works on a global scale, highly sophisticated equipment must be used to design and make the system function properly. WAN network monitoring is also needed to ensure the proper operation of the hardware into the future. These type of monitoring tools are installed when the WAN network setup is completed.


As an amateur computer guru, I have dealt with a great many numbers of local area networks but my experience falls short in the administration of a wide area network or WAN. Recently I faced a challenge of configuring a WAN router and I can assure you that it is very difficult in comparison to setting up a local area network router.

Most people have such devices in their home whether they know it or not. A router is a simple device that regulates and switches network traffic based on a set of rules and standards. When we talk about a wide area network router, the task becomes much more complicated.

Computers are incredible devices but the reality exists that unless they can talk to each other, the systems are much more valuable when they can connect and share information. Imagine using your personal computer at home just for word processing and never actually connecting to the internet to browse the web, check e-mail and chat with friends. Wide area networks make all of these tasks possible.


Terms like WAN that stand for Wide Area Network are some of the most confusing acronyms for the common person. In reality, the lay person will never have a need to use such a term and it just confuses the majority of computer users. I wonder if we will every phase out of this use that our society has for obscure abbreviations and acronyms in the use of the technology and science field. There is no doubt that the shortening of such names can really help professionals in the field when they are conversing but I think that the use is limited in that sense and even then, the pros will sometimes not use them as well.

Between WAN, LAN(which stands for Local Area Network) and other crazy acronyms, there is no wonder why people are often confused and frustrated by the nerd speak of the computer world. Maybe when these names get easier to use will the general public become more knowledgeable and open to the crazy world that is technology today.

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    • A wireless router with a cord plugged into the WAN port.
      By: lexan
      A wireless router with a cord plugged into the WAN port.