What does Wi-Fi stand for?


There. It’s going to be a pretty short article, right?

OK, let’s back up and explain. Wi-Fi has always been a commercial product, unlike earlier forms of networking. Sure its roots date back as early as any other form of networking, in fact even further. The first use of Wi-Fi’s core technology dates back to the days of the Second World War, but wireless communication didn’t really come to the masses until the 1990s and early 2000s.

By then, the standard for wireless networking was established by the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. The IEEE folks are really good at laying out technical specs and almost hilariously bad at coming up with catchy branding ideas. Their original name for Wi-Fi was “IEEE 802.11b Direct Sequence Networking.” Sure, that’s pretty catchy if you’re an electrical engineer, but the idea was that wireless networking could benefit even the least technical of folks, so the group charged with promoting it realized they had a problem. They needed a better name.

Who invented the name

They hired Interbrand, a zillion-dollar-per-hour ad firm, to create one, and the result, unveiled in 1997, was “Wi-Fi.” It doesn’t stand for anything, but it was designed to remind people of the previous generation of technology, which was characterized by the term “Hi-Fi,” short for “high fidelity.” This intentionally led people to the incorrect assumption that “Wi-Fi” stood for “Wireless Fidelity.” It doesn’t.

Those kooky people in the ’90s and their strange ways… this wasn’t the first time that a consumer product got a nonsense name. DVD came first… while you could say the name stood for “Digital Versatile Disc” or “Digital Video Disc” the fact is it doesn’t stand for anything either, and neither does the “X” in “XGA,” indicating graphics more detailed than VGA (which stood for Video Graphics Array.)

Still, the gamble paid off. The organization tasked with promoting Wi-Fi, known at the time as the Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance, changed their own name to Wi-Fi Alliance, and as Wi-Fi began to take over the world, it became pretty clear that it didn’t matter if the term stood for something or not.

Doubling down

In 2018, The Wi-Fi Alliance went one step further. Throughout its life, Wi-Fi has also been known as “Wireless Networking, following the IEEE 802.11 standard” – wow, that’s a mouthful. That standard has been revised over the years as versions 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac. The Wi-Fi Alliance had been trying for years to get you to call them “Wireless-A,” “Wireless B,” and so on. The problem was once you got to “Wireless AC” they had to give up. “Wireless AC” sounds like you’re talking about wireless power, not wireless signal.

So, last year, they “retconned” the names to Wi-Fi, plus a number.  802.11n became “Wi-Fi 4” in marketing materials. 802.11ac became “Wi-Fi 5” in much the same way. Their new standard, officially known as IEEE 802.11ax, will be marketed as “Wi-Fi 6” whenever you see it. There’s no getting rid of the Wi-Fi name now.

In fact, if you buy that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, you have to give it to the Wi-Fi people for several products over the years that have gone by the name MyFi (also meaningless) and our own line of Cel-Fi wireless boosters. Google’s called their cellular calling initiative “Google Fi” and “Fi” doesn’t mean anything there either. The wireless display standard known as “WiDi” also seems worth mentioning here too. Seems like calling something “Fi” is a pretty good way to promote it. In the meantime, a new generation has grown up without ever hearing the term “Hi-Fi” and that’s ok too.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.