What's the Difference Between Wi-Fi & Cellular?
How often have your heard (or even said yourself)...
I need to find some Wi-Fi!
... When what was really meant was: 'I need to get online'?
But technically, Wi-Fi does not mean internet access. It's simply a wireless technology used for connecting devices together.
And this can cause a great deal of confusion, especially for mobile travelers who might be utilizing different forms of wireless technology to get their internet access.
By far the two most common ways that RVers and cruisers will be able to get online is via either a cellular data connection or via an existing Wi-Fi network (such as you might find at a campground, marina or cafe).
And while they are both wireless signals - they are different.
And these differences matter when you're considering your mobile internet setup - as each requires different strategies for getting the best signal and performance.
A Wi-Fi extender will not help you get a better cellular signal, and nor can a cellular booster help you with getting a better signal from your campground's or marina's Wi-Fi network.
The radios involved, frequency bands used and technologies underlying Wi-Fi and cellular data are different.
In addition, cellular and Wi-Fi radios are completely different from and not compatible with TV or satellite antennas either.
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What is Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is a short-range local wireless networking technology used for connecting IEEE 802.11 enabled devices to each other, and is actually a trademarked brand name of the Wi-Fi Alliance. While the name was a pun on the term 'hi-fi' used widely in the era, it's sometimes non-officially referred to as a shortening for 'Wireless Fidelity'.
No internet necessarily needs to be involved, and a local area network might only be used for sharing files between multiple computers, or sending print jobs to a printer also on the network.
However it is quite common for a Wi-Fi router to also be connected to an internet upstream connection called an Internet Service Provider or ISP. The router then is used to share that connection with the devices connected to it.
The internet source might be cable, DSL, satellite, cellular or even another Wi-Fi network.
The wireless signal create by Wi-Fi is relatively short range and meant to only cover a limited area - typically only few hundred feet.
All modern laptops, smartphones, tablets, streaming devices, many TVs and most other internet connected devices have Wi-Fi receiving ability.
You'll encounter a range of Wi-Fi networks in your travels.
- Some are free - offered by campgrounds, marinas, cafes, stores, libraries and hotels as a perk for their customers.
- Some are paid - like Boingo, TengoNet and Xfinity or even paid premium access to higher speeds or bandwidth caps.
- Some are private - like the Wi-Fi network of a friend or family member who you visit in your travels.
All of theses sources have an internet source behind them that someone is paying for to provide.
To further add confusion, a Wi-Fi hotspot may also be one you create and host yourself, such as a hotspot off of your cellular device (smartphone or Jetpack). Or - you may be using a router that can connect to another Wi-Fi hotspot, such as your campground or marina, to use as your internet source.
For more on getting better Wi-Fi:
Tip: Before investing in any Wi-Fi extending gear, take your laptop or tablet up closer to the campground or marina's Wi-Fi access point and test it. Does your surfing experience improve? If it does, then gear might be able to help you bring that experience back to your campsite.
What Is Cellular Data
Cellular is a longer range wireless technology. It is the same basic technology used for cellular phone calls and text messaging.
Each cell phone company (aka carrier) builds cell towers in locations it has customers to serve, and each tower transmits a signal of varying power that can be picked up by devices within its coverage zone - called a cell.
Those individual cells may range from the size of a city block to the size of an entire town (or larger!)
All of these cells are coordinated carefully and designed to overlap, creating a network of coverage.
As you move out of one cell, the connection to your device is handed off to the tower serving the next cell, usually fairly seamlessly. The places where there are gaps between the cells where no tower reaches are known as dead zones.
The quality of your connection will be affected by how far from a cell tower you are, obstructions that may exist between you and a tower, and how many other customers are utilizing the same tower you are connected to.
All smartphones, some tablets, some newer cars, a very few laptops, and some routers have cellular data capabilities built in.
When using cellular data you are accessing the internet via a cell tower that might be within sight or perhaps as far as 20 miles away. That cellular tower in turn usually has a very high speed connection to the internet itself.
Cellular data is rarely free, and access requires you have a data plan with a cellular carrier such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint.
For more on Cellular Data:
Where Cellular & Wi-Fi Collide: Mobile Hotspots & Mobile Routers
Merging cellular and Wi-Fi are smartphones, mobile hotspots and mobile routers with cellular modems built in.
These are cellular receiving devices that also create a personal Wi-Fi hotspot to share the cellular data connection with other devices.
A smartphone or tablet can usually create a personal hotspot that functions like this to share its connection, or a small dedicated device called a MiFi, Mobile Hotspot, or Jetpack (they’re all the same thing) can do the job too.
For more robust needs, there are also cellular embedded routers that offer more pro level networking needs - they're like Jetpacks on steroids.
But in reality, any device that can create a Wi-Fi hotspots is technically a router - including your smartphone.
Conclusion: Wi-Fi and Cellular Data are Different
A cellular data signal is what connects you to the internet, and Wi-Fi is technology for connecting devices. Some devices, like smartphones, mobile hotspots, and some routers, utilize both technologies - they receive a cellular data signal but also create a Wi-Fi hotspot to share that signal with other devices. Understanding the differences between Wi-Fi and Cellular is important when determining your needs and what kind of equipment you will utilize.
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