How WAP Works

By: Jeff Tyson

Wireless Application Protocol

WAP protocol stack

Here's what happens when you access a Web site using a WAP-enabled device:

  • You turn on the device and open the minibrowser.
  • The device sends out a radio signal, searching for service.
  • A connection is made with your service provider.
  • You select a Web site that you wish to view.
  • A request is sent to a gateway server using WAP.
  • The gateway server retrieves the information via HTTP from the Web site.
  • The gateway server encodes the HTTP data as WML.
  • The WML-encoded data is sent to your device.
  • You see the wireless Internet version of the Web page you selected.

To create wireless Internet content, a Web site creates special text-only or low-graphics versions of the site. The data is sent in HTTP form by a Web server to a WAP gateway. This system includes the WAP encoder, script compiler and protocol adapters to convert the HTTP information to WML. The gateway then sends the converted data to the WAP client on your wireless device.


What happens between the gateway and the client relies on features of different parts of the WAP protocol stack. Let's take a look at each part of the stack:

  • WAE - The Wireless Application Environment holds the tools that wireless Internet content developers use. These include WML and WMLScript, which is a scripting language used in conjunction with WML. It functions much like Javascript.
  • WSP - The Wireless Session Protocol determines whether a session between the device and the network will be connection-oriented or connectionless. What this is basically talking about is whether or not the device needs to talk back and forth with the network during a session. In a connection-oriented session, data is passed both ways between the device and the network; WSP then sends the packet to the Wireless Transaction Protocol layer (see below). If the session is connectionless, commonly used when information is being broadcast or streamed from the network to the device, then WSP redirects the packet to the Wireless Datagram Protocol layer (see below).
  • WTP - The Wireless Transaction Protocol acts like a traffic cop, keeping the data flowing in a logical and smooth manner. It also determines how to classify each transaction request: Reliable two-way Reliable one-way Unreliable one-way The WSP and WTP layers correspond to Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) in the TCP/IP protocol suite.
  • WTLS - Wireless Transport Layer Security provides many of the same security features found in the Transport Layer Security (TLS) part of TCP/IP. It checks data integrity, provides encryption and performs client and server authentication.
  • WDP - The Wireless Datagram Protocol works in conjunction with the network carrier layer (see below). WDP makes it easy to adapt WAP to a variety of bearers because all that needs to change is the information maintained at this level.
  • Network carriers - Also called bearers, these can be any of the existing technologies that wireless providers use, as long as information is provided at the WDP level to interface WAP with the bearer.

Once the information is received by the WAP client, it is passed to the minibrowser. This is a tiny application built into the wireless device that provides the interface between the user and the wireless Internet.

The minibrowser does not offer anything more than basic navigation. Wireless Internet is still a long way from being a true alternative to the normal Internet. It is really positioned right now for people who need the ability to connect no matter where they are. The WAP Forum is continually working on the specifications of the WAP standard to ensure that it evolves in a timely and useful manner.

For more information on wireless Internet and related topics, check out the links below!

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