Being in the internet business, we receive a lot of questions about the terms and phrases used in our industry. Terms like Wi-Fi®, wireless networks, wireless extenders, Internet, even ISP confuse many people. Along with these questions, are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about their meanings and purposes.
One of the most often asked questions (or confused terms) is “what is the difference between Wi-Fi® and Internet anyway?” Often people confuse Wi-Fi® with Internet. This confusion or misuse of terminology makes it challenging to troubleshoot at times and frustrates the customer.
The phrases have become interchangeable to many people. Free Wi-Fi® means free Internet, Wi-Fi® not working means the Internet is not working and so on. I catch my 13 year old complaining about the Wi-Fi® while we’re driving on the freeway – the confusion is that widespread.
The truth is Wi-Fi® is not Internet and Internet is not Wi-Fi®.
So what is the difference?
The term Wi-Fi® is actually a trademark; it means “a facility allowing computers, smartphones, or other devices to connect to the internet or communicate with one another wirelessly within a particular area.” It is not, as some people believe, an abbreviation for “wireless fidelity”. Oxford Dictionary
The trademark is used to identify equipment or technology that allows connection to the internet. It is not THE internet connection. Think of it as a bridge between the lump of plastic and glass called a smartphone and the invisible line called the internet. The Wi-Fi® simply links the smartphone to the invisible internet line.
Fairly simple when you think of it like that, right?
This is why you can have a Wi-Fi® network connection at home, go to the airport and link up with the airport Wi-Fi® (the bridge), fly to another location and link up with the hotel Wi-Fi®® network. The Wi-Fi® networks are all different but they do the same thing. They all facilitate your ability to link to the internet.
These wireless networks use devices such as access points, wireless routers, and the like to create the network and establish the connection to the internet. On your smartphone or computer, you are actually connecting to the wireless routing device; not directly into the internet.
Yup, I was pretty surprised to find out Wi-Fi® is a trademark. So I looked at who actually holds the trademark and found Wi-Fi Alliance® is the winner. Their marketing strategy has worked so well, the phrase Wi-Fi® has become so common our toddlers know it. Little did any of us know we were using a trademark to describe a common utility in our world. The Alliance has been a driving force in making the technology widely available and used throughout the world.
So What is Internet Then?
The internet is like a super highway, connecting millions of computers and networks together. When accessing the internet, you are really accessing other computers and data banks (through their own network equipment). Rather than the old days (back in the 80’s) when computers were isolated from one another (remember running from one computer to another with a floppy disc?); today computers are virtually connected via networks and then through the internet.
Internet speed is a measure of how fast information (data) can travel to and from your device. A lot of things determine internet speed. Typically, data must travel from long distances, make several stops (hops) along the way to find its way to you.
For example, perhaps you are planning a trip and using a travel website to look at activities. That travel website may be hosted on a computer server across the country from you. It must travel the local network, hop onto a larger server that transmits the data to a network closest to your location, route to another network (more local), onto your local provider, through their servers, and arrive at your device through your Wi-Fi® network.
It’s pretty amazing how quickly we can access and assimilate information when you consider how complicated the system is to receive (or send) that information.
What Does This Mean for Me?
Now, you can’t do much about the systems between you and the source in regards to performance and speed. But you can make sure the wireless router and internal network at your location is made to function optimally and quickly.
Also, make sure the wireless router / network equipment at your home or office is designed to cover the area you need.
So often we visit customers who do not realize the one router they rely on is not designed to cover an entire house or offer coverage to the backyard or out-buildings. Make sure your router is up to the task.
If it isn’t working as well as you would like, we can help. We have relationships with knowledgeable network specialists who specialize in setting up wireless networks that will work perfectly for your situation.
Some equipment can make your internet experience frustrating. Wi-Fi® extenders are one example. The more the Wi-Fi® signal is “extended”, the more loss of signal strength. Typically we do not recommend using extenders because they degrade your Wi-Fi® signal and negatively affect your internet experience. The best way to get that Wi-Fi® network coverage is with access points (like routers) that are designed to broadcast and receive the signals without loss.
Beware the Mystery Wi-Fi®
A word of caution when you are away from your home or office Wi-Fi® network. We’ve all had those mystery Wi-Fi® networks pop up on our devices. Remember that when you access another Wi-Fi® network (someone else’s router) the owner of that network can see what you are sending and receiving. Don’t ever send sensitive information on an unknown network. If you can avoid it, stay off any unknown network all together. Hackers are clever and they have ways to access your devices without your knowledge.
While traveling, I don’t ever use unsecure networks. Why take the chance?