In the world of computing and telecommunications, the word “wireless” means different things depending on the context. The “wireless Internet” access you might find in Starbucks and the “wireless Internet” of your iPhone are very different. When purchasing a new mobile device or signing up for Internet service, it helps to know which kind of “wireless” Internet is right for you. Making the wrong choice could mean you don’t have Internet access when and where you need it, or it could mean that you end up spending too much for device features you don’t need and an ongoing service plan you could have done without. Here is some basic information about Wi-Fi local area networks and cellular data networks, both of which are commonly called “wireless Internet.”
(Other types of wireless technology — such as Bluetooth, NFC, and RFID — don’t allow devices to access the Internet, so they are not covered in this article.)
Wi-Fi networks are involved if someone mentions a local area network (LAN), a wireless hotspot, or the 802.11 standard (802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and so forth). On Windows computers “wireless networking” refers to Wi-Fi.
Cellular data networks are involved if someone mentions 3G, 4G, LTE, or a data plan where you pay a monthly fee to a cell phone company like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, or Sprint.
Either technology might be referred to as “wireless”. “Mobile Internet” usually means cellular, but a “mobile device” might use either Wi-Fi or cellular. “Broadband” at one time referred exclusively to high-speed wired Internet connections but recently that term has also been applied to high-speed cellular Internet services.
Who owns the network? Who pays when I use the Internet?
When the Internet is accessed over a Wi-Fi network, somebody (for example a homeowner, a library, or a hotel, airport, or coffee shop owner) pays for wired broadband Internet service — probably DSL, fiber, or cable — from an Internet Service Provider (ISP). He then sets up a wireless router that makes it possible for people with Wi-Fi-capable devices to share the existing broadband Internet connection. It typically doesn’t cost the owner anything to add a Wi-Fi network to an existing broadband connection, other than the cost of the router, but if the network is heavily used it might be necessary to upgrade the broadband service or add more routers to support the load. The owner might charge people to use it, but many owners choose to make their Wi-Fi networks available at no cost. The owner might restrict usage of the network by configuring it to require a password, or he might leave it unsecured so that anybody can use it.
When the Internet is accessed over a cellular data network, the cellular service provider (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) owns a network of cell towers and one or more regional communications networks. The company sells mobile devices (primarily cell phones and tablet computers) that are designed to connect to that network. In order to have Internet access, consumers buy a device and subscribe to a service plan that includes Internet data. (For cell phones, the service plan will also include a component for voice calls and text messaging.) Most data plans impose a monthly quota of data and charge an additional fee if the quota is exceeded. Usually each device requires a separate service plan, although some providers may offer service plans that combine multiple devices on one account.
Where can I use it? How do I connect?
To use a Wi-Fi network you have to be within a few hundred feet of the wireless router. If you move too far from the router you will lose the connection.
To connect to a Wi-Fi network, check your device’s Wi-Fi network settings for a list of the networks that are within range, recognize the name of the network (the SSID) that you want, and tell the device to connect. If the network you want is hidden; you will have to type in the SSID in order to find it. If the network requires a login or a password, get that information from the staff of the library, coffeeshop, airport, hotel, or other institution that hosts the network. If there is a fee, you will have to submit payment before you can access the network. Some networks require you to open a Web browser to log in or to agree to the terms of service before you can connect. This could be confusing or annoying if you weren’t planning to use the Web anyway. For example, to use a mobile app which requires Internet data (such as online games, social networks, or online shopping) you might be forced to leave the app, open a Web browser and log in, and then return to the app.
To use a cellular network, you must be in the geographic region covered by the service provider’s network of cell towers. The connection is usually better outdoors. Most cellular devices sold in the U.S. are already locked to a particular provider’s network, and will connect automatically whenever the network signal is strong enough, with no login required. If the network is working well, the connection will be handed off from one cell tower to the next seamlessly as you travel.
What types of device use each kind of network?
Smartphones are always equipped for both Wi-Fi and cellular connections for Internet data. Voice calls and text messaging, however, only use the cellular network.
Other mobile devices, such as iPads, other tablet computers, and ereaders are always equipped for Wi-Fi Internet connections. Depending on the model purchased, the device might also be equipped to use cellular connections. (If the device is described as 3G or 4G, it is equipped to use cellular connections.)
Almost all laptop computers, and many desktop computers, purchased within the last 5 years, are equipped to use Wi-Fi networks. For other computers purchased in the last 15 years Wi-Fi capability can be added with the separate purchase of an appropriate adaptor: A PCI adaptor can be installed inside a desktop computer, a PC Card adaptor (also called PCMCIA or CardBus) can be used with laptop or notebook computers that support that interface, or a USB adaptor can be used with any computer that has a USB port.
Videogame consoles, printers, and other devices are often equipped to use Wi-Fi. Recent models of refrigerators, thermostats, security systems, and other household appliances sometimes use Wi-Fi to enable functions such as remote control or monitoring over the Internet.
Cellular service providers also sell cellular modems, cellular hotspots, and other special-purpose devices that access the Internet using the provider’s cellular network. (Note that when you’re using a cellular modem or hotspot, a laptop or desktop computer may use Wi-Fi to connect to the hotspot, but the modem or hotspot itself is using a cellular connection to the Internet, and the owner of the hotspot will be paying cellular network charges, which might be more than double the cost of a fiber, cable, or DSL connection to the Internet, even without exceeding the monthly data quota.)
Can a single device be used on different networks?
If your device can handle Wi-Fi, it can connect to any Wi-Fi network that is in range, as long as you have the password (for secured networks) and have paid any access fee required by the hotel, airport, or other institution that hosts the network.
In the U.S., most cellular devices are locked to one service provider’s cellular network. In choosing a device, you should first decide which cellular service provider you intend to use, then either buy your device from that provider or, if you purchase it elsewhere, check carefully to make sure that the device is compatible with that provider.
Although in some cases there are ways to unlock a cellular device in order to use it with another provider, for the last two years it has been against U.S. law to attempt to do so. Recent activity in Congress may make cell phone unlocking legal again, but there are still technology differences among the various provider networks that in some cases make it impossible for a device to switch from one network to another.
So how do I choose?
If it fits your pattern of usage, using Wi-Fi is probably less expensive. For mobile devices where Wi-Fi-only is an option (for example, tablet computers), the Wi-Fi-only models cost less to purchase than those with celluar (3G / 4G) connectivity, and many Wi-Fi networks – including the one you may already have in your own home – cost nothing to use, as opposed to paying a monthly fee for a cellular data plan plus extra charges if you ever exceed your quota.
Choose a device with cellular capability if you often need Internet connectivity when you’re on the road, from places where there’s no convenient access to a Wi-Fi network, or from places where Internet service over DSL, fiber, or cable is not available. (But make sure that the cellular service provider you choose – AT&T, Verizon, or whatever — also has network coverage in those areas!) If you have a smartphone, you already have an account with a cellular service provider for voice calls and text messages, so the only additional cost is for the data plan. You may be able to reduce data costs – and avoid exceeding your monthly data quota — by using Wi-Fi whenever you are in range of a Wi-Fi network. To do this, change your app settings to limit the use of cellular data for background updates and push notifications .