What Is the Difference Between Wireless & Wi-Fi?
By Jason Artman
People frequently think of the terms "wireless" and "Wi-Fi" as synonymous, when they describe two entirely different ways of accessing the Internet. While a wireless connection utilizes a cellular network and allows you to use the Internet almost anywhere, establishing a Wi-Fi connection requires you to install hardware in your home or use your computer within range of a router to which you have access. Both connection types have benefits and drawbacks in areas such as transfer speed, signal range and cost.
Wi-Fi is a standard for short-distance wireless communication, used primarily by computers. You can also utilize a Wi-Fi connection with some types of mobile devices and game consoles. In a Wi-Fi setup, a device connects to a router or access point that relays communication to the Internet through a broadband modem. Wireless connections are used primarily by mobile phones, although it is also possible to utilize a wireless connection with a computer by installing the required hardware. In a wireless setup, the device sends and receives data through the nearest cellular tower owned by the user's mobile phone company.
If you have a mobile phone, you do not need additional hardware to access the Internet through a wireless connection; you need only to confirm that your mobile phone plan includes data access and open the phone's Web browser to get online. Some notebook computers also have built-in cellular wireless cards. If your computer doesn't have a cellular card or USB device, install one to access the Internet through a mobile phone provider. To access the Internet through a Wi-Fi connection in your home, you need to purchase a Wi-Fi router and connect it to your broadband modem. You also need a Wi-Fi networking adapter. Modern laptop computers include these, and they are also available as USB or expansion card add-ons. Wi-Fi connections are accessible outside the home at many businesses and other public places. Typically, libraries offer Wi-Fi connections, as do many restaurants and coffee shops.
A wireless connection has a much larger range than a Wi-Fi connection. You can utilize a wireless connection from any location where you receive a signal from your cellular phone provider. The range of a Wi-Fi connection is much more limited; for best performance, utilize the connection from within the same building where the Wi-Fi router is installed.
The download and upload speeds available with a wireless connection are typically slower than the speeds available with a Wi-Fi connection. According to a 2012 PCWorld article, customers in areas with 4G wireless service can receive download and upload speeds of up to 9.12 and 5.86 megabits per second respectively. The speeds on 3G networks are considerably slower. A modern Wi-Fi router compatible with the 802.11n communication standard supports transfer speeds of up to 300 megabits per second, but the speed of the Internet connection limits download and upload speeds.
The costs associated with Wi-Fi connections tend to be much lower than those of wireless connections. After purchasing the required hardware and establishing a Wi-Fi connection in your home, your monthly Internet service bill is your only cost, and there are no limits on usage. Connection charges may apply when using Wi-Fi access points outside the home. The base cost of a wireless connection is similar, but you can often only download a few gigabytes of data per month. If you download more data than is allotted in your plan, you are subject to overage charges.
Jason Artman has been a technical writer since entering the field in 1999 while attending Michigan State University. Artman has published numerous articles for various websites, covering a diverse array of computer-related topics including hardware, software, games and gadgets.