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The 4 different types of wireless networks

The four types of wireless networks -- wireless LAN, wireless MAN, wireless PAN and wireless WAN -- differ when it comes to size, range and connectivity requirements.

There are four types of wireless networks -- wireless local area networks, wireless metropolitan area networks, wireless personal area networks and wireless wide area networks -- each with its own function.

Below we discuss the different types of wireless networks and the various equipment and connections they require.

1. Wireless LAN

Wireless LAN (WLAN) technology provides internet access within a building or a limited outdoor area. First used within offices and homes, WLAN technology is now also used in stores and restaurants. The use of home networks greatly increased as the COVID-19 pandemic forced office workers, students, teachers and others to work and study from home.

Most home network designs are simple. A modem connects to the cable or fiber from a local service provider. A wireless router is connected to the modem and receives the signal from the modem. The router also serves as the wireless access point (AP), which then broadcasts using a wireless protocol, such as the 802.11 standards.

Office networks are more complicated. APs are usually mounted on the ceiling, with each broadcasting a wireless signal to the surrounding area. Multiple APs are required in large offices, each connecting to the office backbone network via a wired connection to a switch. APs coordinate support for users walking through the office area and hand off support to maintain open, connected sessions from AP to AP.

2. Wireless MAN

Wireless metropolitan area networks have been installed in cities worldwide to provide access for people outside an office or home network. These networks cover a wider area than office or home networks, but the principles are the same. APs are located on the sides of buildings or on telephone poles throughout the covered area. APs are connected to the internet via a wired network and broadcast a wireless signal throughout the area. Users connect to their desired destination by connecting to the nearest AP, which forwards the connection through its internet connection.

Comparison diagram showing the different types of wireless networks
Use this chart to compare the major differences among WLANs, WMANs, WPANs and WWANs.

3. Wireless PAN

Wireless personal area networks cover a very limited area -- typically a maximum of 100 meters for most applications -- using protocols like Bluetooth and Zigbee. Bluetooth enables hands-free phone calls, connects a phone to earpieces or transmits signals between smart devices. Zigbee connects stations along an IoT network. Infrared technology is limited to line of sight, such as connecting TV remotes to televisions.

Wireless developers have constantly improved technology by discovering new ways to transmit signals to users. These advances enable higher data rates and increasing range for each of these wireless technologies.

4. Wireless WAN

Wireless WANs use cellular technology to provide access outside the range of a wireless LAN or metropolitan network. These networks enable users to make phone calls to others. WANs can support either speech or data transfer using the same technology. Users can also connect to the internet to access websites or server-based applications.

Cell towers are located nearly everywhere within the U.S. and most other countries. A user connection is routed to the nearest cell tower, which, in turn, is connected either to the wired internet or to another tower connected to wired internet.

5G introduces wireless options

The advent of 5G has suggested a possible fifth form of wireless, larger than a WAN but smaller than most MANs. Ongoing work is investigating a possibly less expensive alternative to cable: 5G to the home or office.

Currently, most cable internet and TV access requires a fiber or coax cable to reach subscribers. Running cable throughout a neighborhood is expensive to install and maintain. With 5G, however, providers could mount a 5G AP on an existing power pole, while each house or building gets a mounted receiver.

5G can compete with cable for data rates and latency, but several drawbacks to this concept could prevent adoption success. Below are some of the drawbacks to 5G:

  • 5G signals are point to point. Any obstruction, like a building or tree, disrupts communication.
  • Distance is limited from about 1,000 to 2,000 feet.
  • Heavy rain and snow can disrupt the signal, which isn't acceptable for internet or TV access.
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA are concerned 5G could interfere with their satellites that monitor changing atmospheric measurements to help predict upcoming weather.

Assuming providers and organizations can overcome these issues, 5G competition will vary. Most areas in the U.S. are served by cable installed years ago. 5G to the home or office would be competitive only in areas with new housing and office developments or where there is no current cable infrastructure.

As neither a MAN nor a WAN but a combination of the two, 5G to the home or office will constitute a new category of wireless access. Still, whether this 5G option succeeds, the capabilities of 5G will open new applications for wireless.

Next Steps

Steps for wireless network planning and design

What is the difference between WLAN and Wi-Fi?

This was last published in October 2022

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