It may come as a shock to some people that wireless internet is not actually wireless at all! In fact for a large wireless network there may be hundreds or thousands of wires just to get the wireless data to the internet! If we considered how many wires it takes to actually stitch together the internet we probably wouldn’t be able to count them!

So then what does it actually take to make a wireless network, huh? Let’s start small and look at a typical wireless application for the home. Everyone with internet at home has WiFi these days thanks to “wireless routers.” But “wireless routers” are neither “wireless” nor are the only “routers”, so what’s going on?

A typical home “wireless router” is actually a complex device that performs the functions of three devices (sometimes four) in one. In a more traditional network like you would find on a college campus, each role that a home router plays would be played by separate devices for performance and redundancy. The roles that a home router may take are:

  • Router: A device that has some insight on how the network is designed in order to effectively move information from point A to point B. It may not know where point B is, but it knows someone else who might.
  • Switch: A device that allows multiple wired connections all to communicate with each other.
  • Wireless Access Point: A device that translates information passed over a wireless link to a wired link in order to reach the rest of the network or the world wide web.
  • Modem/ONT: A device that is able to communicate with an ISP in order to allow the end user access to the ISP network and essentially the internet.

A home router packs all these functions into a single device for your convenience and it takes just about all of them to support a wireless network. Now usually just one such device is enough to handle a home network. But let’s start thinking about the bigger picture. For instance let’s think about what it takes to run a wireless network at Oregon State University.

OSU is a very big school. There are a lot of buildings and a lot of those buildings are big. Every building needs wireless access and each access point can only generally cover the area of about one room. If you’re following along then you’re probably starting to realize the magnitude of such a network. But let’s build a hypothetical network (and it will be hypothetical because I have no knowledge of how the networks are actually built).

For now let’s consider every building on campus to be an independent entity each with their own subset of the larger network. Each building has one router on the bottom floor and every router in every building has a connection to every other building by some way which we won’t consider.  If every building has 4 floors and each floor has 20 rooms, then we will need 80 wireless access points per building (wow!). To connect all of these access points each floor will need a switch, plus there will need to be a switch at the bottom floor to connect each floor together and to the router. Things are getting pretty complicated now. Each building now has at least 86 devices in it just to create the wireless network. Multiply that by 10 buildings and we’re now looking at 860 devices not including all the other pieces of the puzzle I’m leaving out.

Back to the whole “wireless is not wireless” deal, if we look at the example network every connection between devices must be done with a wire. That’s just about one wire per device which ends up being somewhere around 86 wires per building. If we were to actually consider all the wires that connect the buildings together that number would skyrocket!

There is also a lot I didn’t cover here to keep things brief, but hopefully even if you don’t fully understand what each device does, you have a good idea of how big of a network actually exists. We take WiFi for granted, but in reality there is a lot involved to create and maintain that service.

So next time you see your friendly neighborhood IT Admin, be sure to thank them for all the hard work they put into maintaining your “not wireless wireless” connection!

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