Technology Explained

How Does Wireless Internet Work?

Simon Batt Updated 18-11-2019

Wireless internet is one of the quietest developments in the broadband world, yet millions of people depend on it every day. So, what is wireless internet and how does it work?


Let’s explore this relatively-unknown technology and how it helps people.

How Does Wireless Internet Work?

You may be confused about why we called “wireless internet” a relatively-unknown technology. After all, we use Wi-Fi, 4G, and satellite internet every day. Surely it can’t be that unknown?

While the above technologies can be called “wireless internet,” we’re covering a specific kind of internet in this article. In fact, it’s the technology used when fiber-optic, 4G, and satellite internet are unfeasible. It’s the last resort for rural communities who need the internet to keep up with the modern world.

These rural areas have internet “beamed” to them by towers. A router sends and receives signals to a dedicated wireless internet tower. These towers are managed by Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), and they’re set up strategically to cover rural areas as best as possible.

If you’ve ever used a portable mobile Wi-Fi hotspot The 7 Best Portable Mobile Wi-Fi Hotspots If you spend more time away from home than at home, you'd be surprised by how useful a portable Wi-Fi hotspot is. It lets you take the internet with you everywhere you go. Read More , you’ll already know how a wireless connection works. A router receives Wi-Fi signals from devices and beams the data onward to a mobile network. Wireless internet works similarly, except it uses the towers instead of 4G.


Now we know what wireless internet is, let’s explore how a wireless connection works and how it’s provided.

How Wireless Broadband Works

Usually, you’ll find wireless internet where other means are impossible. There is no cable internet, and the mobile internet is either non-existent or very slow.

When a company decides to wire up a community to wireless internet, it sets up towers in elevated areas around the town. These will transmit and receive data from the customers and businesses that use it.

Then, the tower has to be hooked up to the internet. If the town isn’t too rural, it may be possible to wire up the tower to a fiber-optic cable. This would be a lot cheaper and more convenient than wiring up the entire town.


Alternatively, if the tower can’t be wired up, it can transmit its data to another tower nearby. These towers can then continuously pass along the internet signals until it reaches the WISP.

Customers then have equipment set up on their homes to send and receive internet signals. Sometimes, they can achieve this using a long-range router. If the tower is too far away, they can mount a receiver to the outside of their house. This receiver isn’t unlike the television dishes you see on houses.

This kind of internet connection is known as “fixed wireless internet” because it’s transmitting data from two fixed locations. Houses and office buildings aren’t moving anywhere, so the internet antenna mounted on them are set in place.

This internet connection is also referred to as “radio frequency internet” or just “RF internet,” as it depends on radio waves to send and receive signals.


What Is a WISP?

We briefly touched upon WISPs earlier, but what are they exactly? WISPs are typically owned by smaller businesses that want to supply internet to a region. They usually fill the gaps that the larger enterprises deem too unprofitable to explore.

Because WISPs are typically set up to fit a local demand, the staff is made up of locals. They don’t have the equipment and technology available to larger broadband companies, but their local roots allow them to serve their customers better individually.

How Many People Use WISPs?

Of course, the majority of people use wired internet connections; that’s the kind we all know and love. However, WISPs still have a place in a world where an internet connection is becoming a need instead of a luxury.

Preseem reported that 4 million US citizens subscribe to WISPs—that’s around 1% of the total US population. They also said that this number might double by 2021. While these figures aren’t prominent in comparison to the US population, WISPs still provide internet to 4 million people who have otherwise have nothing.


How Fast Is a Wireless Internet Connection?

WISPs aren’t as fast as a wired-up fiber optic connection, but they’re not painfully slow either. Test Internet Speed claims that WISP-based connections can go between 1-15Mbps. In comparison, the fastest average 4G speed is in Singapore at 44.31Mbps, according to OpenSignal. For a rural setting, 1-15Mbps isn’t too bad!

What Are the Advantages of Wireless Internet?

Wireless internet connections can hook up entire towns without needing to lay much wire. At most, the WISP only needs to get a cable to the tower broadcasting to the town. From there, the tower can cast and receive signals from the houses and businesses with wireless internet receivers.

Also, wireless internet data plans tend to be more generous than traditional fiber-optic. Customers get more data for less, potentially due to the grassroots nature of WISPs and how competition can spring up overnight. This means there is no single monopoly which can set strict data caps and high prices with little repercussion.

Mobile phone plans can also be generous with their offerings. If you’re always maxing out your phone data, be sure to check out the cheapest phone plans with unlimited everything The 8 Cheapest Phone Plans With Unlimited Everything Looking for the cheapest phone plans with unlimited everything? Here are your options and which one's the best value for you. Read More .

What Are the Disadvantages of Wireless Internet?

The main flaw with using WISP is that the tower needs direct line-of-sight to the receiver. If anything gets between the two, it can degrade the signal and make the internet slower. As such, it’s not great for densely-populated areas.

Also, wireless broadband is affected by rain. This means that in soggier climates, there may be a lot of slowdown during downpours.

Getting the Most Out of Wireless Internet

While wireless internet goes unused by a large percentage of the world’s population, millions do depend on it for their sole source of internet. Now you know how wireless internet works and how rural areas can get online through them.

If you have a speedy mobile connection but you’re too rural for fiber-optic connections, why not learn how to get Wi-Fi without an ISP How to Get Wi-Fi Without an Internet Service Provider: 5 Methods Don't have a regular ISP? Don't worry! Here's how to get Wi-Fi wherever you are, even without an internet service provider. Read More ?

Related topics: Computer Networks, ISP, Wi-Fi.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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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