Wireless Local Area Network

What Does Wireless Local Area Network Mean?

A wireless local area network (WLAN) is a wireless distribution method for two or more devices. WLANs use high-frequency radio waves and often include an access point to the Internet. A WLAN allows users to move around the coverage area, often a home or small office, while maintaining a network connection.


A WLAN is sometimes called a local area wireless network (LAWN).

Techopedia Explains Wireless Local Area Network

WLAN should not be confused with the Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi trademark. First of all, although some may use the terms “Wi-Fi” and “WLAN” interchangeably, there are some semantic differences in play. Where “Wi-Fi connection” refers to a given wireless connection that a device uses, the WLAN is the network itself, which is different.

Also, “Wi-Fi” is not a technical term, but is described as a superset of the IEEE 802.11 standard and is sometimes used interchangeably with that standard. However, not every Wi-Fi device actually receives Wi-Fi Alliance certification, although Wi-Fi is used by more than 700 million people through about 750,000 Internet connection hot spots. The hot spots themselves also constitute WLANs, of a particular kind.

WLANs and Access Points

Every component that connects to a WLAN is considered a station, and falls into one of two categories: access points (APs) and clients.

  • Access points or APs transmit and receive radio frequency signals with devices able to receive transmitted signals; they normally function as routers.
  • Clients, on the other hand, may include a variety of devices, such as desktop computers, workstations, laptop computers, IP phones and other cell phones and smartphone devices.

All stations able to communicate with each other are called basic service sets (BSSs), of which there are two types: independent and infrastructure. Independent BSSs (IBSS) exist when two clients communicate without using APs, but cannot connect to any other BSS. Such WLANs are called a peer-to-peer or an ad-hoc WLANs. The second BSS is called an infrastructure BSS. It may communicate with other stations but only in other BSSs and it must use APs.

Emerging WLANs and the Ubiquity of WLANs

In the early 1990s, WLANs were very expensive, and were only used when wired connections were strategically impossible.

By the late 1990s, most WLAN solutions and proprietary protocols were replaced by IEEE 802.11 standards in various versions (versions “a” through “n”). WLAN prices also began to decrease significantly.

As technology progressed, WLANs became easier and easier to set up and administrate.

That led to the emergence of the ISP WLAN, where many small local home networks are coordinated by the Internet Service Provider, and not engineered by the end-user on-site.

In these types of ISP WLAN setups, the ISP’s modem is the access point. It’s also the router. All that the consumer has to do is plug in the WiFi router, use provided security passwords, and connect home devices to the home WLAN.

You could call this “wireless local area network as a service” (WLANaaS) or refer to a “plug-and-play” or abstracted wireless local area network model. In any case, it’s ultimately very convenient for the household.

Although ISPs don’t usually advertise their products as home LANs, that’s what they are. Some types of ISP services talk about using the modem as a “gateway” to the Internet, which implies that your WLAN is on the other side of that gateway.

Users of home WLANs are more frequently connecting devices such as phones, televisions, computers and printers to evolved WLAN systems where the ISP will offer some type of dashboard visualization for the WLAN in question.

There’s also been some innovation toward peer-to-peer WLANs that work without a defined access point. In other words, all of the devices are independently operated to network together. This challenges the traditional idea that the WLAN was made of access points and clients, as discussed above. At the same time, in the client/server architecture, where a similar approach is used to engineer Internet services, peer-to-peer systems are also challenging that traditional build as well.

As the IoT paves the way for advanced connectivity, the WLAN provides that “subnetwork” and the convenience of local Wi-Fi operation.


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Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.