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.)

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!

Explore more about: Computer Networks, ISP, Wi-Fi.

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  1. Dave
    June 29, 2019 at 6:54 pm

    A couple of weeks ago, construction of a new Windstream tower about a half a mile from our home was completed. It looks similar to a cell tower. From what you described above, it is probably a relay tower. It is not up and running yet. I check every other day, because currently we subscribe to Windstream DSL, of which they have "oversold" in this area, so the max speed they currently allow us is 3mb down. There are trees and some lower and possibly slightly higher elevations between us and the tower. Do you literally need to see the tower? If it is very close, as in our case, will trees, houses, rolling hills , etc block the signal completely? If so, we will be very disappointed. Thanks for sharing your knowledge in this matter!

  2. sush
    January 23, 2017 at 10:36 am


  3. Vijay kashyap
    October 31, 2016 at 3:13 am

    Does the speed depend on number of phones connected to that particular network?

    • johny376
      June 3, 2017 at 11:19 am


  4. kalyankumar
    October 13, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    This RJ 49 cable is finder it value able & frequency make it

  5. Brad
    March 8, 2016 at 6:48 am

    anyone know if ports showing as blocked could be some kind of interference or something blocking the signal? my wisp says they dont block ports. but my ps4 ports definitely are not open

    • Guy McDowell
      March 14, 2016 at 1:50 pm

      Port blocking can happen at the device, router, or server level. Your WISP might not be blocking those ports, but they could be blocked just about anywhere else.

  6. Wyatt Andersen
    February 5, 2016 at 3:49 am

    We have a wireless company (Broadband) in our area that kept cutting out every 30 seconds. After changing countless receivers and modems they said they couldn't fix it.

    First they said it wasn't good because of Russian hackers (what?) then they said oil rigs in the area were interfering with it. My Dad has an app on his phone that tells him where oil rigs are (he works in the oil field) and there wasn't any rigs in the area where they were pointing. They also said it was just us having problems and people on Facebook were, in fact, having the same problems. Their customer service also could be better. Their name was IWantWireless and, well, I don't want their wireless anymore. Not too good. I personally think they over sold and didn't upgrade their servers. Also I've seen one of their towers and it doesn't reach above the tree line.

    We switched to Xplornet (satellite internet) which isn't good but at least it's better than IWantWireless. Satellite is also all we can get here in rural Alberta, Canada that has enough usage for us other than IWantWireless. That's my rant the day. :/

    • Guy McDowell
      February 5, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      Hi Wyatt,

      That seems to be the experience for a lot of wireless broadband customers. All those excuses sound just like that - excuses.

      There's nothing on an oil rig that would interfere. Unless the derrick was standing between you and the transmitter.

      Xplornet is alright. It does limit what you can do online. Video is pretty much out of the question. But, what do you do in a rural area? I know how you feel. I went from small town Alberta to rural Nova Scotia.

      Hopefully cell phone data rates will go down over the next few years. That'd really help out us rural folks.

  7. Anonymous
    October 14, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    Hi, we have line of sight broadband internet service. At least as of yesterday. Now all the modem does now is show "searching" on Navini Ripwave MX 2.5-2.6. I don't know if it needs replacing but do you know where we could purchase modem? Our provider no longer "services" this since Navini was purchased by Cisco.

    Any help to get back online is greatly appreciated.

  8. Anonymous
    August 2, 2015 at 4:42 pm

    I use wireless internet through Hudson Valley Wireless. The radio on the front of the dish operates at 2.5Ghz. It works very well, since I am aimed at a relay, 16 miles away, which is perched on top of a ski slope! So much for a 4 mile limit! My download speed varies between 4Mbs to 8Mbs. And, it's not hampered by rain or snow! It's usually around 4Mbs. The latency is usually around 30 to 40ms. Not too shabby, I would say, considering that I had Exede satellite, and the latency was about 700ms! That's about a half second, and unavoidable! Try talking on the phone at that latency! It works, but it is easy to talk over the other party. If anybody has wireless internet in their area, (WISP), I highly recommend it!

  9. ALi
    May 10, 2015 at 11:45 pm

    hi there
    i want to know that is Gsm is the Application of Satellite ?

  10. M Black
    April 28, 2015 at 4:41 pm

    Guy, is SCADA communication one that can be used by a commercial user? Could a retired Air Force veteran with radio frequency training have is own system? How is this service procured? I understand that you do not need an FCC license to operate a SCADA system, is that correct?

    • Guy
      April 28, 2015 at 8:17 pm

      A SCADA system is just one that gives you the ability to supervise, control, and get data about an automated process.

      SCADA systems can use any type of communications from WiFi to licensed bandwidth if the job requires it. You can use non-licensed frequencies, but beware using a bandwidth with a lot of traffic. It also can open you up to security issues as well. Anybody can hop on the frequency.

      With your background, if you wanted to put something together, I'm sure you could. Things like the NEST thermostat and other home automation systems could sort of be classified as SCADA systems.

  11. Arshad
    March 23, 2015 at 4:36 pm

    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.

    • Guy
      March 23, 2015 at 6:02 pm

      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.

  12. greg
    October 29, 2009 at 8:27 am

    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
      October 29, 2009 at 10:57 pm

      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.

  13. Yonathan Zarkovian
    August 19, 2009 at 5:10 pm

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

  14. Greg
    July 23, 2009 at 9:54 pm

    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
      July 24, 2009 at 6:30 pm

      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.

  15. Rob Levin
    July 23, 2009 at 9:59 am

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

  16. Stefan Neagu
    July 23, 2009 at 3:28 am

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

  17. Ryan Dube
    July 22, 2009 at 8:14 pm

    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
      July 22, 2009 at 9:02 pm

      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.

  18. Matthew
    July 22, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    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
      July 22, 2009 at 9:00 pm

      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.

      • kulmise1
        September 9, 2009 at 10:54 pm

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