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Exploring Wireless Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and Cellular

22 July, 2020
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Today’s technology provides a myriad of ways to connect wirelessly: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and cellular interaction are just a few. In this article, we’ll delve into how each of these technologies works, what differentiates them and which is the better choice for various applications.

The first thing that’s important to note is that all wireless technologies use some form of radio. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is responsible for allocating which frequencies are used for which purposes on the radio spectrum.

 

Wi-Fi

This form of wireless internet is most frequently used in home and business locations to connect mobile devices (such as laptops, tablets or cell phones) to the world wide web. Your wireless device uses an adapter to translate data into a radio signal, which is sent to a router. The router receives the information, converts it from a radio signal back into digital data and sends it out using a landline connection. There are seven distinct radio frequency bands set aside for Wi-Fi, with the most common being 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. You can set up different wireless networks on the same router using different frequencies.

Wi-Fi networks can be as small as the setup you have at home; this is technically referred to as a “LAN” or local-area network. Some urban areas have created a city-wide Wi-Fi network, referred to as a “MAN” for metropolitan-area network. The largest type of network is a “WAN” or wide-area network. The internet is the largest WAN and spans the entire globe.

Advanced security is available for Wi-Fi technology, and this method of wireless connection can be made very safe. However, because of the extremely customizable nature of Wi-Fi, an unsecured network can allow virtually unlimited access to any devices connected to it.

 

Bluetooth

This is a wireless connection that’s used to pair devices over a very short distance. There are three classes of Bluetooth technology. Class 1 has the broadest coverage at up to 100 meters, while Class 3 devices are limited to less than a 10-meter range. The most common applications include audio equipment (such as speakers or headsets), computer equipment (e.g., wireless keyboards and mice) and vehicle interfaces with cell phones. These devices use UHF radio waves between 2.4 and 2.485 GHz.

Bluetooth security is generally not very customizable. It has a strong base level of security using a block cipher, which generates a key that must be entered into one or both devices. A knowledgeable hacker can typically penetrate this, but two inherent aspects of Bluetooth tech lessen that vulnerability. The first is the extremely short range of the radio transmission; anyone who wants to disrupt your devices must be within ~100 yards of your location. Second, devices that use Bluetooth connectivity are generally not transmitting secure information, so there’s typically little incentive to interfere.

 

Cellular

Cell phones are essentially advanced radio transceivers. In the same way a Wi-Fi router receives a radio transmission, converts it to data, then sends it over the internet, your cell phone will transmit a radio signal to the nearest cell tower, which will turn it back into a voice signal and send it over an actual phone line.

You’ve probably heard the term “5G” thrown around at least a few times recently. This is the most recent generation of cell phone connectivity, and it’s pretty impressive. While the previous generation (4G) offered top download speeds of 100Mbps, 5G speeds can hit 10Gbps. The new 5G standard uses two different ways to connect. The first is via “millimeter-wave” (mmWave) frequencies in the 20 to 60 GHz range. The top of the range dips into one of the Wi-Fi spectrums, meaning you’re not using a cell connection as much as you’re using a wide-area network Wi-Fi signal, which is why the speed can be so high. However, like the Wi-Fi signal in your house, the range is limited, so you won’t see this connectivity outside of urban areas. Elsewhere, your cell phone will connect to cell towers using sub-6 GHz radio signals.

The bad news is that cell networks are incredibly easy to hack. The good news is that any app that uses personally identifiable information (PII) uses advanced encryption to scramble the data between the app and the server. While a hacker could potentially intercept it, they wouldn’t be able to decrypt and use it.

 

Different Tech for Different Purposes

All wireless technology leverages radio signals, and which one a particular technology uses depends on a number of things. Internet of Things (IoT) devices are great examples: depending on the device, a manufacturer could choose to connect via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or a cellular network. The type of data that’s transmitted, the broadcast range and security concerns tend to be the primary determining factors.

Moiz Bhinderwala

Moiz Bhinderwala leads the technical services and logistics teams at Dynamic. With more than 10 years of experience in the IT industry, Moiz has deep knowledge of the complex technological landscape, working closely with clients to understand their IT challenges and help design custom technical solutions to meet their business goals.

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