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What is a Wireless LAN?

By R. Kayne
Updated: May 16, 2024

A wireless local area network (WLAN or wireless LAN) consists of two or more computers that communicate wirelessly via radio waves. This is contrasted to a wired LAN, in which each computer in the network is physically tethered with an Ethernet cable to the server's network switch or hub.

The basic structure of all networks consists of a main computer or server, along with connected machines known as clients. The server typically has two Ethernet network interface cards (NICs) installed and software that can support the network. Microsoft Windows operating systems have featured built-in networking capability since Windows 98 Special Edition (SE), but third party networking software is also available. In the case of a simple home wireless LAN, a desktop might be the server while a laptop could be the client.

Let's assume that the desktop has a digital subscriber line (DSL) connection -- high-speed Internet service. In order to share the Internet connection via a wireless LAN, the desktop will be physically connected to a wireless DSL modem. The wireless DSL modem might also have a built-in network switch or router. These two devices keep data flowing to the proper machine on the network. If they are not built into the modem, they will have to be purchased separately.

The connections from the desktop server to the DSL modem, switch and router are made with physical Ethernet cables. The clients, however, do not require cabling. Instead, each machine must have a wireless NIC installed. This might be a PCMCIA NIC, a USB device or even an internal wireless NIC. Many, but not all, wireless NICs feature a small antenna.

Once the wireless LAN has been set up on the server and client, the machines can communicate by sending and receiving data via radio waves. This makes a wireless LAN very convenient because the client can remain mobile anywhere within the broadcasting range of the network. One can work on a laptop in any room in the house -- even the backyard in most cases -- and still share the network connection from the server.

At the office, a wireless LAN provides instant connectivity to mobile personnel. It also avoids the costly expense of running Ethernet cable throughout a building, providing easy, effortless desktop connectivity between clients. Because there are no wires running to the clients, one of the main advantages of a wireless LAN is easy installation. Wireless LANs also provide more flexibility than wired LANs and are less expensive.

Two disadvantages of the wireless LAN are that it requires a few more steps to secure it from intrusion; and it can be slower and, if interference is present, less reliable than a wired network. However, dependency speeds are always improving as technology improves. Some configurations of wireless LANs can compete with wired networks.

Standards of wireless technology are indicated by letter designations. The wireless "g" standard delivers speeds of 54 megabits per second (mbps). With augmented technology like the latest varieties of multiple input multiple output (MIMO), rates can reach 100 mbps. This is about the speed of an average DSL connection and hard-wired network. Previous wireless LAN standards "a" and "b" are slower technologies.

EasyTechJunkie is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By dss10 — On Jan 14, 2016

I just purchased a Canon PIXMA MX922 All-in-One Inkjet Printer. To perform the setup, I need to place the machine near the access point and computer, for a wireless LAN. I get my internet through a wireless signal from a Netgear extender, from my roommate downstairs. Does this mean I would have to place the printer near his modem or Ethernet, and his computer? Or can I place it near the extender which is in my room? I apologize if this seems like a stupid question. I'm not very computer literate. Thank you for your time. -- Darla S.

By Mae82 — On May 09, 2011

If I want to set up my own Wireless LAN in our home, does anyone know how far the signal will travel or is it different depending on your hardware and Internet provider?

I know we should set up security on our network so that no one can piggyback off our signal and get free Internet, but if the signal is kind of weak does it really matter if you have a password or not?

I can never remember multiple passwords so it would be easiest for me to forgo that kind of security if possible.

Do you think that it is a good idea or a bad one to just leave our network unsecured to save us having to remember another password?

By letshearit — On May 06, 2011

Setting up a wireless LAN is actually pretty easy. We already had our modem attached to our main computer with an Ethernet cord, and we purchased our own WiFi wireless router on sale. So this central computer became our hub.

All that is really involved is connecting your modem to your new wireless router (the pictures make it simple to follow), making sure the antennas are up, and installing any software that is packaged with your new wireless router.

Once all your computers are up and running off of your new hub, you have your own WLAN that is easy to maintain and makes surfing the web at home more convenient.

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