How Does Wireless Internet Work? [Technology Explained]

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radiotowerIn my role supporting SCADA units in the field, I’ve often been asked how does Wireless Internet work. I usually answer with the question, “Which kind of wireless Internet?” Some people say that WiFi is wireless Internet, some think of radio-based Internet access as wireless, some even think of satellite Internet access as wireless. Then there is cellular based Internet access as well. At that point, you guessed it, glazed over eyes and wandering away. Please don’t do that – I’ll get to the point soon.

Canopy 440 ReceiverReal wireless Internet access is most accurately described as the kind that is based on radio frequencies. You might see homes with the little white rectangular box mounted near their eaves trough. Those are folks with Wireless Internet Access.

Let’s work this from the Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) to your computer.

From your ISP there will either be cabling or a radio transmitter that will relay signals to a tower. It may go through several towers before it gets to your home, or you might be close enough that you catch it off the first one.

See, the challenge with wireless Internet service is that it should be line-of-sight. That means that if you were to put your head in the middle of the receiver and look straight ahead, you have to be able to see the tower. (I do NOT recommend doing this since those signals could be less-than-healthy for you.)

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Once the signal makes it to your nearest tower, it then travels directly to your receiver.  From your receiver, it will go over ordinary networking cable (RJ-45) to your modulator/demodulator (you know it as a modem). When it is modulating, it is turning your outgoing information into something that the wireless network understands. When it is demodulating, it is turning the signal into something your computer will understand. Clear as mud? I thought so. Here’s a picture.


As I said before, this is all done with radio frequencies. Do you have a cordless telephone? It will probably have numbers on it that read something like 900 MHz, 2.4 GHz, 5.2 GHz or 5.7 GHz.? These are the radio frequencies in which your cordless phone operates. Well, so does wireless Internet!

The WISP’s use these frequencies because they don’t require a license to do so. Licenses cost money and come with severe restrictions, so why wouldn’t you use public frequencies? Ah hah! I heard someone say ‘security’! You are correct. Yet communications over these frequencies are acceptably secure. That’s because encryption is added to the signal. They take something that someone might possible be able to unravel, put it through encryption and, voila, secure Internet signal. Well, as secure as it can be anyway. DES encryption is commonly used.

Now, I hear someone asking why there are different frequencies. Think of them like highways – too many cars on it and everything comes to a standstill. So we use more than one highway.

Something else to consider with wireless Internet is that the frequencies also offer different attributes. Have you noticed that you can’t take your new 5.2 GHz cordless phone three doors down and still be able to talk on it? Yet when you are in your house the clarity of voices on it beat your old 900Mhz phone easily.

It’s similar with wireless Internet. Looking at Motorola’s Canopy receivers, you’ll notice that the 900 Mhz receiver has an effective range of up to 40 miles! Then the 2.4GHz receiver is limited to about 5 miles. That’s a huge difference! Go all the way up to the 5.7 Ghz receiver and we’re down to a measly 2 miles. However, the 900 Mhz receiver is more likely to have its signal interfered with by other signals out there. So, your choice, range or quality of signal? Choose wisely.

Are you currently using stationary wireless a.k.a broadband wireless? Like it? Hate it? Does this article help you to understand better what is going on with it? Let us know, down below!

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14 Comments - Write a Comment



A good article, though I was kind of expecting you to explain how those other forms of internet work that you mentioned early on (wifi, etc.)
Would have been nice for some people if you had explained about frequencies, just for a bit of clarity.
Other than that, very informative, thank you.

Guy McDowell

Thanks Matthew. That would have made for a long article indeed! Perhaps a series of articles is in order. Aibek? Mark? Jackson? What do you folks think?

I did certification for satellite Internet installation and I work with CDMA modems extensively, so I’d be glad to write on those.


I would love to read an article on Satellite internet installation! But this was very clear and helpful already.
thank you


Ryan Dube

This is a very well-written article Guy – it’s clear that you know your stuff when it comes to wireless networks. Hey, another thing we have in common – we both work with SCADA systems – however mine are on a manufacturing floor! Again – great article!

Guy McDowell

Thanks Ryan. I’m still apprenticing as an Instrumentation Tech. even though I’ve worked in the field for 3 years. It’s hard to find time and money to go to school. Eventually I would like to get back to my programming roots, but with PLC’s and such.


Stefan Neagu

I’m going to join the bandwagon and say that I found this article well-written, interesting and informative. Good job!


Rob Levin

Very well done on this article! It kept things very accessible and I appreciated that. Thanks for the contribution.



A discussion on maximum speeds would be good, as I’m somewhat perplexed with my wireless speed, as I do broadband speed tests that are in the range of 500k, but YouTube and HuffPost video clips still pause and stutter. I believe it’s 2.4 GHz wireless..

Guy McDowell

Speed tests can be misleading. Your Internet connection is seldom the bottleneck. Imagine turning on your garden hose full blast, but it only trickles. Do you check the hose or call up the town to check the water main? Chances are the water main is fine and the hose is the problem.
I’ll get into this in more detail in the future.


Yonathan Zarkovian

I’d like to see more similar articles. Very interesting!



will my hydro line coming into my house mess up my wireless internet? my dish is just 3 feet up from the line>

Guy McDowell

So, I’m guessing you already have your wireless Internet and your electricity lines in place. If it doesn’t affect your wireless Internet right now, then it probably won’t in the future.



Hi Guy
I need a continous non break internet for one of my high cost project, so I was planning to buy a Radio Frequency Liscence from govt. But can you explain whether I can use these RF frequency band to convert and use for internet service. If yes please explain me the procedure.


It depends more on the bandwidth and speed that you need. Using a cell modem, satellite Internet service, or the kind of wireless Internet service talked about in the article, you should be able to accomplish your goal.

Those would be a lot cheaper and quicker to implement than building your own system from scratch. No Internet service of any kind can guarantee 100% up time.

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