What is the Difference between WiFi and Cellular?

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By far the two most common ways that RVers will be able to get online is via either a cellular data connection or via campground or public WiFi network.

But – one of the most basic questions we occasionally get asked – just what exactly is the difference?

There's so much confusion out there as to why separate antennas and booster equipment are needed for cellular and WiFi connections. Both are wireless frequency signals after all, so just how are they different?

Here is the basic breakdown:


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First, a quick video going over this topic:

Wi-Fi

WiFi can generally only be reached a few hundred feet away.

This is a short-range local wireless network technology used for connecting enabled devices to each other. It’s not necessarily the internet itself, but is often used this way in casual conversation.

The Wi-Fi “hotspot” is a wireless access point which shares its upstream internet connection (such as cable, DSL, satellite, or even cellular) via a wireless signal that can generally be received only a few hundred feet away.

All modern laptops, smartphones, tablets and many other internet connected devices have Wi-Fi receiving ability.

Many Wi-Fi connections you might encounter tend to be provided for free – offered by campgrounds, cafes, stores, libraries and hotels as a perk for their customers. But there are some paid options out there like Boingo, TengoNet and Xfinity.

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To reach these options when they're just a bit further away then where your RV is parked, sometimes installing WiFi extending gear (antennas, radios and routers) can help you bring in the WiFi signal better.

However, if the upstream internet connection (cable, DSL, etc.) being used for the WiFi network doesn't have enough capacity for everyone trying to access it - no amount of WiFi repeating equipment can help. You may get more bars on your signal, but the actual performance won't improve much. RVers are often disappointed to discover campground WiFi rarely is solid enough to be reliable.

Tip: Before investing in any WiFi extending gear, take your laptop or tablet up closer to the camground's WiFi 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.

To further add confusion, a Wi-Fi hotspot may also also be one you create and host yourself - such as off of your smartphone, mobile hotspot or router. In those cases, you may be paying for the internet data being utilized.

Cellular Data

Cellular data is received from a tower that might be up to 20 miles away

This is a longer range data connection using cellular towers.

Cellular data uses the same basic wireless network that cellphones use for voice and texting – with service provided by a cellular company over licensed airwaves.

All smartphones, some tablets, some newer cars, a very few laptops and some routers have cellular data receiving capabilities built in.

When using cellular data you are accessing the internet via a cell tower that might be right next door, or perhaps as far as 20 miles away. If you have a weak cellular signal, sometimes cellular antennas and cellular boosters can help you improve the signal.

Here's some more resources: Cellular Boosters for RVs  and  Selecting a Cellular Antenna

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.

Mobile Hotspots

A cellular mobile hotspot (the Verizon 7730L)

Merging cellular and Wi-Fi are mobile hotspots.

These are cellular receiving devices that also create a small 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.

Which is better? Well, that depends on your situation:
Ways to Use Cellular Data To Get Online: Jetpack, Smartphone or Router?

Selecting a LTE Mobile Hotspot or Modem (MiFi / Jetpack)

The radios involved and technologies underlying Wi-Fi and cellular data are different – a cellular booster is not going to help you pull in a Wi-Fi signal, and extended-range Wi-Fi equipment will do nothing to improve your cellular reception.

And needless to say – cellular and Wi-Fi radios are completely different and not compatible with TV antennas either.

For further reading:

Mobile Internet Options for RVers Overview

How to Use Cellular Data To Get Online: MiFi/Jetpack, Smartphone Tethering, USB Modem and Mobile Routers

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