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The Electromagnetic Spectrum

Electromagnetic waves span a wide range of frequencies (and, accordingly, wavelengths). This range of frequencies and wavelengths is called the electromagnetic spectrum. The part of the spectrum most familiar to humans is probably light, the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Light lies roughly between the frequencies of 7.5*1014 Hz and 3.8*1014 Hz, corresponding to wavelengths from circa 400 nm (violet/blue) to 800 nm (red).

We are also regularly exposed to other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, including AC (Alternating Current) or grid electricity, at 50/60 Hz, X-Rays / Roentgen radiation, Ultraviolet (on the higher frequencies side of visible light), Infrared (on the lower frequencies side of visible light) and many others. Radio is the term used for the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum in which waves can be generated by applying alternating current to an antenna. This is true for the range from 3 Hz to 300 GHz, but in the more narrow sense of the term, the upper frequency limit would be 1 GHz.

When talking about radio, many people think of FM radio, which uses a frequency around 100 MHz. In between radio and infrared we find the region of microwaves - with frequencies from about 1 GHz to 300 GHz, and wavelengths from 30 cm to 1 mm.

The most popular use of microwaves might be the microwave oven, which in fact works in exactly the same region as the wireless standards we are dealing with. These regions lie within the bands that are being kept open for general unlicensed use. This region is called the ISM band, which stands for Industrial, Scientific, and Medical. Most other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are tightly controlled by licensing legislation, with license values being a huge economic factor. This goes especially for those parts of the spectrum that are suitable for broadcast (TV, radio) as well as voice and data communication. In most countries, the ISM bands have been reserved for unlicensed use.

The electromagnetic spectrum.

The frequencies most interesting to us are 2.412 - 2.484 GHz, which is used by the 802.11b and 802.11g radio standards (corresponding to wavelengths of about 12.5 cm). Other commonly available equipment uses the 802.11a standard, which operates at 5.170 - 5.805 GHz (corresponding to wavelengths of about 5 to 6 cm).

Last Update: 2010-12-03