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How radio frequency (RF) of microwaves alter wireless signal strength

Microwaves are a part of the radio frequency (RF) spectrum. Our wireless networking expert explains the difference and how RF affects wireless signal strength in this expert response.

What is the difference between RF energy and microwave energy other than frequency and wave length?

Electromagnetic radiation refers to all electrical and magnetic energy that moves through the air at the speed of light. Radio frequency (RF) refers to a subset of electromagnetic energy, generally transmitted through an antenna, creating waves with a desired frequency and length. Frequency represents the number of waves passing by each second, while length is the distance traveled per second.

As illustrated below, the RF spectrum generally refers to frequencies between 3 kHz and 300 GHz. Microwave commonly refers to the subset of the RF spectrum with wavelengths shorter than 30 cm and frequencies above 1 GHz.

Click to enlarge image.

Microwave ovens, wireless access points, and TV broadcasters all generate RF energy. For example, Wi-Fi devices use frequencies within the ISM (Industrial Scientific and Medical) and/or UNII (Unlicensed National Information Infrastructure) band. The ISM band used by 802.11b/g/n starts at 2.4 GHz and is divided into 11 unique channels. Many other consumer electronic devices transmit within the ISM band, including cordless telephones, Bluetooth peripherals, baby monitors – and microwave ovens.

More on spectrum analyzers

To learn more about RF frequencies and devices that use them, see Lisa's tip on troubleshooting with spectrum analyzers.

Microwave ovens generate RF energy at a frequency of 2.45 GHz, using a magnetron to convert electrical energy into radio waves that bounce around inside the oven to heat food. Microwave ovens are designed to contain those radio waves, but it is possible for some leakage to occur, especially in older ovens. This is why microwave ovens can degrade nearby Wi-Fi performance -- any RF leakage that occurs competes for frequencies used by many 802.11b/g/n access points.

Note that "microwave" and "microwave oven" are not synonymous. Microwave ovens generate microwaves, but not all microwaves are generated by ovens.

This was last published in June 2009

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