What is the difference between WLAN and WiFi?

The terms “WLAN” and “WiFi” are often used to describe the wireless network in one’s own four walls or Internet access in a cafĂ© or restaurant. The terms are used synonymously for wireless data transmission, which is not entirely correct.

While WLAN networks are almost exclusively referred to in Germany, the word WiFi is used in English-speaking countries. But why is that, and are both the same standard? What exactly is the difference between WLAN and WiFi?

The abbreviation WLAN stands for “Wireless Local Area Network”, i.e. a wireless, local network. WiFi, on the other hand, is the abbreviation for “Wireless Fidelity”, which is similarly difficult to translate into German as “High Fidelity” (Hi-Fi).

Hi-Fi could best be translated as “high fidelity”. Hi-Fi stands for a sound reproduction that is as loss-free as possible, i.e. for a quality standard. Accordingly, WiFi could be translated as “as loss-free as possible wireless data transmission”.

WiFi – a logo for wireless communication

The term Wi-Fi was introduced in 1999 by the Wi-Fi Alliance in reference to the Hi-Fi term. This is a consortium of companies that has set itself the task of ensuring interoperability between WLAN-capable devices.

Means: the Wi-Fi Alliance conducts tests to ensure that devices can communicate and exchange data with each other. Manufacturers that pass Wi-Fi Alliance certification receive the familiar Wi-Fi logo.

The standard for WLAN technology

The basis of the Wi-Fi Alliance’s tests is the WLAN IEEE 802.11 standard, which was developed by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). The standard saw the light of day in 1997 after seven years of preliminary work. For the first time, there were uniform standards and specifications for wireless networks.

So while WLAN is the collective term for wireless networks, WiFi serves as the concrete name for the somewhat unwieldy name “IEEE 802.11.” In Germany, the term “WLAN” has become established for a wireless network. In contrast, the term “WiFi” is more common and strictly speaking more precise abroad. WiFi – or IEE 802.11 – is indeed one type of WLAN, but there are others, such as the European HiperLAN. So if you want to know exactly, ask for the “WiFi password” next time.

The IEE 802.11 standard is constantly being developed. The current version is 802.11ax, which is known to the public as Wi-Fi 6.

ALOHAnet – the first WLAN originated in Hawaii

The idea of transmitting data from one device to another without a cable connection did not originate in the engineering minds of the IEEE. The first wireless computer network was created in 1971 at the University of Hawaii and was appropriately named ALOHAnet. The university used it to wirelessly connect its campuses spread across several islands.

In the late 1970s, the IEEE jumped on the bandwagon and experimented with wireless network technologies. When the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) initiated the commercialization of wireless networks in the mid-1980s, it triggered a boom in the development of wireless data modems.

Monopoly caused high prices

In 1988, Lucent launched “WaveLAN” on the market and secured a monopoly on WLAN technology by patenting all components. Other manufacturers had to develop their own WLAN components and chips. As a result, WLAN was so expensive that it was only used in the professional sector and only where there was no other option.

It wasn’t until 1999 that WLAN became interesting for consumers. Steve Jobs presented the first iBook with its own WLAN technology at the Macworld Expo in New York. Standardization through IEEE standard 802.11 caused prices to drop even further, making WLAN increasingly affordable for manufacturers and consumers.

More and more devices are becoming WLAN-capable

Since the first version of the 802.11 standard, the IEEE has continuously developed it further. At that time, it came with a data rate of just 2 Mbit/s. It was transmitted in the 2.4 GHz band. This is still the case today, but in the meantime the 5 GHz band has been added and the speeds have long since reached the gigabit range – at least in theory.

Also interesting: Find out your own WLAN speed with just one click

WLAN and other wireless transmission technologies have long since conquered the world. In 2003, there were 500 million networked devices worldwide. Last year, there were already 50 billion. Today, everyone owns 6.58 devices that can network wirelessly with other devices. Eighteen years ago, the figure was only 0.08. This means that around twelve people would have had to share one such device.