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I've just started learning about Wireless networks and I have a question about the terms "WiFi" and "Wireless LAN".

Whenever I think of WiFi, I think of connecting wirelessly to the network and to the internet, which is basically what a WLAN is, right?

Can these 2 terms be used interchangeably or is there any major difference between a WiFi and a Wireless LAN?

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    For the common usage it is important to note that in English WiFi is easier to pronounce than WLAN, which makes it the preferred term. The same is not true in German, for example, because the German name of the letter W has just one syllable, it is very similar to the English name of the latter V. So we have no trouble saying WLAN (imagine saying VLAN as V-LAN) and it is indeed the common term. See for example avm.de/produkte/fritzbox/fritzbox-7590-ax where WiFi is only used to refer to a numbered standard.
    – Carsten S
    Dec 22, 2022 at 12:36
  • There are also the major categories of wireless networks, related mostly to distance: w-pan, w-lan, w-man, and w-wan. Personal area, local area, metropolitan area and wide area. Examples might be bluetooth earpiece to phone, a home, city and cellphone coverage over the country.
    – CGCampbell
    Dec 22, 2022 at 16:46

3 Answers 3

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Wi-Fi refers to a specific wireless LAN type (IEEE 802.11), but there are other types of wireless LAN.

All thumbs are fingers, but not all fingers are thumbs. All Wi-Fi LANs are wireless LANs, but not all wireless LANs are Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi is certainly the most common type of wireless LAN, but it is not the only type, e.g. Bluetooth, among others.

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    Wonder if Bluetooth is really an example of an alternative "network". If it is, wouldn't USB qualify as a network protocol as well? Better examples might be LoRa mesh networks or LTE.
    – JoL
    Dec 21, 2022 at 23:39
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    Bluetooth may not be the best example here, as it’s typically categorized (and used) as a PAN and not a LAN, but then, there’s not really much in the way of commodity alternatives to 802.11, and a lot of this just comes down to usage (I’ve seen people using 802.16, 802.15.4, LoRaWAN, GSM, and even AX.25 as the base for what most people would call typical LAN usage). Dec 21, 2022 at 23:41
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    How about Zigbee as an example of a wireless LAN that is not Wifi ?
    – Criggie
    Dec 21, 2022 at 23:46
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    Other wireless LANs: HomeRF a brand of 802.11 FHSS and was a lower-cost competitor to Wi-Fi (which was 802.11 DSSS). HiperLAN which was a mainly European attempt at a competitor to Wi-Fi. HiperLAN/2's modulation became the basis for 802.11a. WaveLAN the predecessor to 802.11 created by NCR, it worked at 900 MHz and 2.4 GHz. DECT while primarily a cordless phone standard, it has rarely-implemented data networking features.
    – user71659
    Dec 22, 2022 at 4:28
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Wi-Fi and Wireless LAN (WLAN) are often used interchangeably to refer to the same thing, which is a wireless network that allows devices to connect to the internet or to each other using radio waves.

The term Wi-Fi is a trademarked term that stands for "Wireless Fidelity." It is commonly used to refer to wireless networking technology that uses the IEEE 802.11 standards to provide wireless communication between devices.

Wireless LAN, on the other hand, is a more general term that refers to any wireless local area network, regardless of the specific technology or standards used.

So, in short, Wi-Fi and WLAN are essentially the same thing, and they can be used interchangeably to refer to a wireless network that allows devices to connect to the internet or to each other using radio waves.

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    "The term Wi-Fi is a trademarked term that stands for 'Wireless Fidelity.'" It is trademarked by the Wi-Fi Alliance that says it does not actually stand for anything. The original term was for that, but the trademarked term is not.
    – Ron Maupin
    Dec 22, 2022 at 7:01
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    Presumably it was a play on "Hi-Fi", a common term for phonograph technology, which was an abbreviation for High Fidelity. @RonMaupin
    – Barmar
    Dec 22, 2022 at 16:20
  • Yes @Barmar. I am old, old enough to remember when Hi-Fi was standardized by the FTC, and I saw a game show some years ago where the accepted, although incorrect, answer for the meaning of "Wi-Fi" was "Wireless Fidelity."
    – Ron Maupin
    Dec 22, 2022 at 18:48
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Whenever I think of WiFi, I think of connecting wirelessly to the network and to the internet, which is basically what a WLAN is, right?

I would suggest another way of thinking: WiFi or WLAN replace the wire with some kind of radio-based transfer in otherwise, well, cable-based networks. Here, the radio waves have the same function as the electricity in copper or the light in glass fibres.

This way of thinking puts your mind on the proper layer of the network stack, and makes it much easier to debug problems or plan proper solutions for your needs.

The physical layers are obviously completely different. But the similarities start to show up very early in the network stack, well below the IP/UDP layer one is familiar with. In fact, the engineers who have invented all of this have obviously taking great care that on top of the physical layers, things get done in an uniform, consistent manner as soon as possible.

If you get a WiFi device which allows or forces you to do very fine-grained custom setup (i.e. not the locked-down pre-configured standard WiFi "router" you get from 99% of the customer-oriented DSL providers these days), you'll notice that many aspects of your network setup do not care a bit about whether a given leg is cable- or radio-based.

The WiFi radio module in your router or smartphone has the same type of MAC address like the ethernet port in your laptop, and for example your separate DHCP server (which assigns IP addresses to MAC addresses) does not care (or usually even know) if the device lives on radio or the wire.

The packets being broadcast through air are a similar format (802.11 frames) as copper-based Ethernet frames and live on the same abstraction layer - i.e., they are transmitted between MAC addresses (i.e. the usually fixed, "burned-in" addresses of physical components in your devices/routers). If you have a generic enough WLAN device, you can easily treat it like just a way to forward 802.11 or even Ethernet packets over air, it does not need to know anything about IP package formats, routing, and so on (this would be useful for dumb WiFi expanders which just forward packages on a low level to avoid problems with distance or obstacles and which would not even need or have a MAC address of their own).

Neither has much to do with the "Internet" except insofar as with our everyday network technology, all these network technologies are very easy to connect to the Internet (and obviously are for 99% of the consumer WLANs). But that is not a property of WiFi/WLAN in itself, but happens on a higher layer.

Neither has much to do with WAN (wide-area-network) technology, aside, again, from being obviously more or less related in some aspects or on some of the abstraction layers.

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    "The packets being broadcast through air are a similar format (802.11 frames) as copper-based Ethernet frames and live on the same abstraction layer" Wi-Fi frames are quite different and of a larger variety than ethernet frames. Ethernet has a basic frame with a very few minor variations. Wi-Fi has multiple frame types to set up and maintain connections, and some have four MAC addresses in the frame header, where ethernet only has two.
    – Ron Maupin
    Dec 22, 2022 at 18:52
  • True, @RonMaupin; I'd hoped my usage of "similar" and other relatively vague verbiage, and giving the links to the reference of the two frame formats makes it clear that the frames are not exactly the same. For the purpose of this answer, the important commonality is that they are the same abstraction layer, and within that, very similar indeed (even if they aren't completely equal).
    – AnoE
    Jan 9, 2023 at 8:53

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