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How WiFi Works: WiFi 6E, 5G & the Future of Internet Connections

How WiFi Works

WiFi, a funny two-syllable word, has become an ingrained part of our lives, and is something we don’t even think twice about.

In 2016, it was estimated that 5 BILLION devices had WiFi capabilities installed in them.

WiFi is a trademarked term meaning IEEE 802.11x, with its initial tag line stating: “The Standard for Wireless Fidelity.” WiFi actually wasn’t meant to be an acronym for Wireless Fidelity, but the assumption was made and popularized in the 2000s. WiFi allows devices to be connected to the Internet without being connected to a physical cable, and without the need for cellular service.

Phones, computers, tablets, smart watches, televisions, gaming consoles, and more use WiFi to connect. Even refrigerators, lights, water bottles, and digital cameras are now built with Internet connectivity.

It’s hard to imagine life without being able to access WiFi—Millennials, and especially Gen Z, probably couldn’t fathom not being connected 24/7.

How WiFi Was Invented

Prior to the creation of WiFi, in order to connect to the Internet you had to use an Ethernet cable, which plugs into a network termination box wired to your home from your cable company. The need to have a hard-wired connection limited the use of devices and the type of devices that could be connected to the Internet.

The invention of modern day WiFi cannot be credited to one person, but there are a few key contributions that stand out in developing this revolutionary technology.

Vic Hayes played an important role inventing WiFi. In 1997, he was chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) committee. By creating the 802.11 standards that WiFi would eventually use, he has been dubbed the “father of WiFi.” These standards are the radio frequencies (RF) used for transmitting wireless data on networks.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) also deserves a nod for their major contribution to WiFi. The scientists in this organization worked in radioastronomy. In their field of study, they came across issues of radio waves bouncing off indoor surfaces, creating an echo that distorted the signal. Understanding this problem, they were able to develop a chip that could still transmit the same signal while lessening echo effects.

The first release of the modern 802.11 protocol was in 1997, which transmitted data at 2 Megabits per second (Mbps). Today, data can be transmitted at speeds up to 200 Mbps.

Every couple of years, the standards are amended to result in faster speeds and further coverage. We have gone through amendments a/b/g/n/ac/ax, which translate to WiFi 1-6. WiFi 6E was released in January 2020 as an evolution on WiFi 6.

Cisco predicted that in 2020, there would be an incredible 432 MILLION public WiFi hotspots.

In June 2019, 4.5 billion people were Internet users. And much of these users are connected via WiFi.

How WiFi Works

Using RF waves, WiFi works like a two-way radio transmission.

The key piece of hardware needed for a wireless network is a router. Routers take the place of your device requiring Internet. Instead of connecting your laptop to an Ethernet cable which is hardwired to the network termination box provided by the cable company, you connect the router to the Ethernet cable.

While all these cable connections are still wired, the router then emits a high frequency radio signal throughout your home so you are free to move around with any connected device. Imagine routers as the hubs where all signals originate and terminate (making them hazardous to your health, but more on that later).

Devices have adapters or antennas to receive these RF signals. Devices connect to the radio waves transmitted from the router, which allows information and data to be transferred from the Internet to the devices. Signals are sent between routers and devices, establishing a communication pathway.

Downstream activity occurs when data is transferred from the server (i.e. network emitted from the router) to a device. Upstream activity is the opposite, sending data from devices back to the server. This difference is important because download and upload speeds may be different and require different bandwidths.

Router Speed

WiFi routers traditionally run at 2.4 Gigahertz (Ghz) but WiFi technology has advanced to develop 5 Ghz routers, and now 6 Ghz routers (WiFi 6E) have been announced to keep up with the 5G network speed as 6 Ghz becomes licensed to use. We will discuss more about WiFi 6E and its implications later on.

2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz refer to the frequencies routers run on. The 5 Ghz WiFi routers ARE NOT the same as the 5G (5th Generation) cellular network being rolled out worldwide. It’s easy to confuse the two.

5G stretches over a large spectrum of frequencies. The low bands from 600 Mhz to 900 Mhz (bands also used in 3G and 4G, but 5G providers could improve efficiency) are used the most. High band frequencies can go up to 300 Ghz. Your WiFi router is at a fixed 5 Ghz (and now 6 Ghz). If you want to learn more about the 5G network standards, read more here.

There are two main differences between routers using 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz.

  1. Bandwidth: Bandwidth refers to the capability to transmit data. The more devices connected to a network, the slower the connection will be because of the congestion of the bandwidth. As bandwidth increases, so does the ability to transfer more data and at a faster rate. Download and upload speeds are high. 5 Ghz has a higher bandwidth than 2.4 Ghz, equating to a faster connection.
  2. Range: How far a WiFi signal transmits is important to its functionality. 2.4 Ghz has more range than 5 Ghz.

WiFi Hotspots/Jetpacks

WiFi Hotspots

Normal WiFi routers that plug into your wall have a limited range of a couple hundred feet, since you have to be near them to connect.

WiFi hotspots are wireless routers that don’t need the hard-wired connection. By connecting to a cellular data network, the hotspots convert the cell signal to create a wireless network that WiFi enabled devices can connect to wherever there is cellular service. This can include locations like in a car, at a park, or at the beach.

There are a range of these devices from different cellular carriers, such as Verizon’s Jetpack MiFi, AT&T’s Nighthawk LTE Mobile Hotspot Router, and Sprint’s HTC 5G Hub. On average, the Verizon MiFi delivers a download speed of about 1.5 megabits per second (mbps).

How do those speeds compare to a traditional router? American households have an average download speed of 17.2 Mbps. However, compared to the latest WiFi standard that can stream at 9.6 Gbps (yes, gigabits not megabits), hotspots run quite slow.

Because hotspots rely on a cellular network to broadcast a wireless signal, cell service strength has a direct correlation to the hotspot’s capabilities. If you are in an area of good service coverage, your hotspot should function well. Areas of poor cellular connection will lead to a slow wireless connection.

EMF Radiation Emissions

When it comes down to it, all electronic devices emit harmful electromagnetic frequencies (EMF radiation). These frequencies have been shown to biologically affect the body, regardless of the presence of heat. Heat damage used to be thought of as the only negative effect of EMF radiation exposure, but now we know otherwise. Some risks include cellular damage and DNA breaks, fertility problems, cancer, and decreased organ function.

Mobile devices, like cell phones, are on or near your body throughout the day, so their EMF radiation emissions are of primary concern. Between all the RF signals coming to and from a cell phone–cellular, Bluetooth, and WiFi–as well as the Extremely Low Frequency (ELF) radiation being emitted from the electrical components within the device, there are serious health concerns surrounding cell phone usage. For a better understanding of the connection between cell phones and EMFs, check out this blog post.

But cell phones are not the only devices you should be worried about.

WiFi routers transmit at a 2.4 Ghz or 5 Ghz frequency, which is considerably higher than cell phone transmissions ranging from 850 Mhz to 1900 Mhz. However, 5G cell service will start to encompass some of the same higher frequencies as WiFi.

Even if the frequencies were the same, WiFi routers are a larger power source. While phones usually stay under 15 milliwatts (mW) of power, WiFi routers transmit at a minimum of 100 mW, and can go up to 4000 mW.

Additionally, as more devices connect to a router, more signals are sent out, only increasing your exposure. Because of this, while it is safe to be at least 1-4 feet away from a mobile device, you should stay at least 10 feet away from your WiFi router, and make sure it is not in any of your occupied living spaces.

To get a more in-depth look at the health dangers of WiFi, check out this blog article.

What is WiFi 6E?

On January 3, 2020, the WiFi Alliance introduced the term WiFi 6E, an update of the WiFi 6 standards from September 2019. WiFi 6E gives users access to the 6 Ghz WiFi spectrum. This was done to keep up with 5G-enabled devices that are able to use 6 Ghz and beyond for enhanced speed.

WiFi 5 gave access to the 5 Ghz frequency, and WiFi 6, released in September 2019, gives access to both the 2.5 and 5 Ghz frequencies outlined above, as well as increasing the max data rate from 3.5 Gb/s to 9.6 Gb/s. WiFi 6E additionally has access to the 6Ghz frequency.

As 5G becomes more popular and relied upon by apps and networks, WiFi will be able to better support the new Internet data market.

What is the Future of WiFi & 5G?

Even with WiFi 6E, 5G is a network supplied from Telecoms that might eventually render WiFi from cable companies a thing of the past. This is because it will be able to create a cellular signal higher even than the powerful 5 Ghz, so it won’t be necessary to have a router wired into a ground Internet connection. As 5G becomes more universal, you can just skip the “hub” and wirelessly connect to the 5G small cell tower outside your home sending out frequencies up to 300 Ghz.

While WiFi from cable companies and cellular networks target different markets, their audiences are merging, and the 5G Network might become the more capable resource.

Already, there is a new service called 5G Fixed Wireless offered by service providers like Verizon. With fixed wireless, a fixed antenna is installed on your house, which can then give you access to the 5G network by connecting your router or device (like a smart TV) to a wireless cell tower. This differs from traditional wireless Internet, explained above, where your router plugs into a wired cable that runs straight to your cable company. 

As for the dangers of this increased data bandwidth and speed, they can only be predicted. Since WiFi 6E and 5G use higher-frequency waves to deliver data faster, they can’t easily penetrate through as many barriers such as walls and buildings. We do know that 5G towers will have to be much closer to each other and to us. In order to get a constant signal, these towers will exist in denser quantities and expose us to radiation 24/7. Your WiFi 6E router will have to be much closer for you to get its 6Ghz connection.

Please visit our 5G Guide for more information on 5G.

How to Protect from WiFi:

Protecting yourself from the dangers of WiFi will help you lead a healthier life. Here are some ways you can guard against the negative effects of WiFi and other EMF radiation emissions.

  • Limit time using WiFi and turn it off when not in use.

    Use a Christmas light timer so it automatically turns off at night to decrease exposure without having to think about it. In general, it’s a good rule of thumb to limit technological use. More research is establishing a link with increased screen time and the rise of mental health issues.

  • Keep the router away from the bedroom and other areas of your home where you spend a lot of time.

    The closer you are to a router, the more harmful the EMF radiation will be. Putting a WiFi router in the bedroom is the worst idea because studies have shown that EMFs can alter brain waves and cerebral blood flow, thus impeding your natural sleep patterns, among other things.

  • Use shielding products.

    Protecting your body is an easy way to block out the harmful effects of WiFi. Try out an EMF Radiation Protection Blanket the next time you are lying in bed or lounging on the couch to protect yourself from the ambient WiFi radiation.
    However, it’s important to understand that shielding a WiFi router does not work without inhibiting its function. WiFi has to send and receive signals in order for it to work. Putting a router in a protective cage would prevent EMF radiation from escaping, but would also prevent the necessary wireless signals from being transmitted. In that case, it is better to just turn it off or set it on a timer to turn off at night. To learn more about Faraday cages, check out this blog post.

Another way you can limit WiFi exposure, but at the source, is with a low-emitting router, also called an eco router. The average WiFi router emits 10 signals per second, constantly, as long as it’s turned on. Your exposure to EMFs increases with each signal ping sent out. The signals are necessary for establishing a quick connection and ensuring fast upload and download speeds. Eco routers can be put in “standby mode” that reduces WiFi emissions by emitting only one signal per second. You can decrease your transmission power for your particular accommodations, and you can also have scheduled times where it completely shuts off.

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Daniel T. DeBaun

Daniel T. DeBaun is an internationally recognized and influential expert in Electromagnetic Radiation (EMF) and shielding electronic emissions, with a particular focus on the effect of exposure from mobile devices such as laptops, tablets and cell phones. Daniel’s concern regarding the health impact of electronic radiation emissions grew from over 30 years of engineering experience in the telecommunications industry, where he held a variety of leadership and executive positions at Bell Labs, AT&T, SAIC and Telcordia. Daniel is co-author of recent bestseller, Radiation Nation: The Fallout of Modern Technology, a complete guide to EMF radiation safety and protection. Daniel is also a highly regarded industry consultant, speaker as well as frequent guest national radio and television programs discussing EMF health issues.