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Internet and Wi-Fi: A Popular Tech Case of Mistaken Identity

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Sometimes an obvious thing to one ain't so much so to another. Case in point: The notion that the Internet and Wi-Fi are two different things.

I've received so many questions about the Internet and Wi-Fi troubleshooting or shopping advice requests in which these two are assumed to be one or one mistaken for another. It's frustrating.

A reader recently even got kinda mad because they "[...] bought the Asus RT-AX86U per your review, and my Internet speed didn't change ONE bit".

So, this post aims to make it absolutely clear that these are two separate entities. If you already know that, well, it can still be an interesting read. Or not.

Dong's note: This post was initially part of the piece on Broadband Internet Troubleshooting. I expanded it to a separate post on  April 13, 2021, to make the subject matter clear.

Internet and Wi-Fi: The Netgear CM600 Cable Modem
Internet and Wi-Fi: The Netgear CM600 cable modem (Internet) is connected to a Netgear RAX120 router (Wi-Fi).

Internet and Wi-Fi: Not even a chicken-and-egg matter

That's right.

OK, the Internet -- the version we're using that is -- was commercially available about a decade before Wi-Fi. But since its inception, Wi-Fi has undoubtedly helped bring the Internet to the mass, if not validating its usability. Without Wi-Fi, you can forget about all the mobile devices and their fancy.

Still, neither Wi-Fi nor the Internet is the result of the other. They play their own part to keep you connected.

But for years, Wi-Fi has been synonymous with Internet access -- it's the most popular way, and increasingly so -- to get online. When you travel, Wi-Fi is basically how you get online. That sure is why folks get confused between the two.

And that's OK in terms of getting that social post published or sending out that email. But when it comes to figuring out what to buy or what to repair, you must know the difference.

Let's start with Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi 6E Routers
Internet and Wi-Fi: A variety of Wi-Fi routers all have antennas to broadcast wireless signals.

Wi-Fi: The wireless alternative to network cables

That's right! Before Wi-Fi, network cables were the only way to connect devices within a local area network (LAN).

It's simple. You plug a cable into a device, and now it's part of something. Unplug it, and now it's not. What you see is what you get.

Wi-Fi makes things a bit mysterious. In a way, you can see it as invisible network cables. Well, you can't see it, but you know what I mean.

A Wi-Fi broadcaster (a router or access point) broadcasts wireless signals for Wi-Fi clients (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc.) to catch on to create connections. It's like you're throwing an invisible network cable from the router to each client.

(This invisible notion makes things extremely complicated. For example, the notion that you need to make sure a particular party, and not just any party, can catch the signals alone -- known as Wi-Fi security -- can be a headache. In more ways than one, Wi-Fi is a totally different beast from regular network cables.)

In a local network (like your home), the Wi-Fi router (or router for short) creates the entire local system and keeps devices connected. As long as your router works, your local services are available.

As a result, you can print to your network printer, make backups to your Time Capsule device, play music to your Wi-Fi speakers, stream content from your home server, and so on, even when there's no Internet access.

The takeaway on Wi-Fi

Since Wi-Fi is generally a local matter, you can have strong signals yet can't get to any website or send/receive emails or stream Netflix, which needs the Internet.

On the flip side, if your router is down -- like unplugged -- then you also can't get online at all, even though your broadband provider assures you that your Internet is fine.

Netgear CM2000 Nighthawk Multi Gig Cable Modem Back
Internet and Wi-Fi: A closeup on the Netgear CM2000 Nighthawk Multi-Gig cable modem. Note the service line (bottom) and the network port to connect to a router.

Internet: Let’s bring that outside stuff in, and send this inside stuff out

The Internet is the connection between many parties around the globe. These parties can be a single device or local networks (including your home). This is the reason the Internet is also called the worldwide web (www). Technically it's the wide-area network (WAN) as opposed to the LAN mentioned above.

There are many ways to connect to the Internet, but generally, in a home, the Internet connection is the job of a modem or a fiber ONT -- your terminal device.

Fiber-optic vs Cable: The competition for fast broadband

Each terminal device allows as many devices as its network ports to connect to the Internet. In most cases, each terminal allows for just one device. And this device is part of the worldwide web mentioned above.

Since we need to connect many devices to the Internet simultaneously, the device we hook to the terminal is almost always a router, which creates our own local network.

(And when you use a Wi-Fi router, you then have a local Wi-Fi network. Many terminal devices have a modem and Wi-Fi router in one. There's an official name for combo device -- it's a "gateway.")

This Internet distribution takes place via regular network cables or Wi-Fi signals. You can read more about this in my post about how to build a home network from scratch.

So when your device, like a smartphone, connects to your home Wi-Fi, it becomes part of your home local network. If this network has a connection to the Internet (like a cable broadband plan), then your phone will get online via Wi-Fi, too.

That said, as you're reading this right now, chances are the device you're using currently connects to the router of your local network (likely via Wi-Fi). That router connects to a terminal device (a modem or a gateway), and the terminal device connects to the Internet.

And voila! You're now reading what I wrote about the things that must have happened for you to be able to be reading what I wrote. Amazing!

The takeaway on the Internet

You can have the Internet without Wi-Fi. In this case, your computer needs to connect to the modem via a network cable.

On the flip side, your Wi-Fi router might have nothing to do with the fact you have no Internet. And in many cases, having a new router will not help if your Internet is slow or low quality.

Another important note is this: Your Internet speed tends to be more limited (slower) than your Wi-Fi. So just because you have a fast Wi-Fi network doesn't mean you connect a lot of devices to the Internet simultaneously. This is where Internet-regulating features like QoS come into play.

The quick take

The Internet is like the front door of your house or office building. Wi-Fi is like the doors between different rooms within that building.  

When you're stuck inside – that's to say you can't get online – you need to fix the right door or doors. Banging on a random one just because it's close by won't cut it.

OK, now that we've gotten Wi-Fi vs. Internet sorted out, here's something that can be confusing: Cellular Internet. Is it Wi-Fi? Well maybe.

Cellular Internet and Wi-Fi and mobile hotspot

The cellular Internet is interesting because you use a wireless connection to access the Internet directly on a mobile device -- your phone. But it's pretty simple.

When you use your smartphone's cellular connection (4G LTE or 5G), it's similar to using a single device with a modem.

Specifically, the phone itself is a computer that has a built-in cellular modem. This modem allows the phone itself -- a single device -- to connect directly to the service provider's network and hence, the Internet.

Mobile Hotspot
Internet and Wi-Fi: The status screen of a typical mobile hotspot

It gets confusing because all smartphones also support Wi-Fi -- it's just like your laptop in this case. And when you're at home, chances are your phone connects to both a cellular network and a Wi-Fi network at the same time.

In this case, you'll see two signal indicators on its screen at the top right or top left corner, depending on the phone. The vertical signal indicator is the Wi-Fi network, and the horizontal is that of the cellular network.

By default, a phone generally uses Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet before using its mobile signal. In other words, if Wi-Fi is available, you won't use up your cellular data plan.

But when you're out and about, you can turn your phone into a mobile hotspot. In this case, it uses the cellular connection to access the Internet and then uses its Wi-Fi adapter to broadcast signals to share that access.

You can do that or get a mobile hotspot, such as the Verizon Jetpack 8800L. In either case, the Internet-providing device is a mini gateway. Indeed, it's a tiny Wi-Fi router with a built-in cellular modem.

The hotspot connects to the Internet via its modem and then redistributes that connection to multiple devices via its integrated Wi-Fi broadcaster.

Here's something to keep in mind: When you use a mobile hotspot in an area without cell reception, you can still have strong Wi-Fi on your device but can't connect to the Internet.

And that's a typical example of how Wi-Fi is different from the Internet. Just because it's close to you doesn't mean it's always fair or correct to blame it.

Internet and Wi-Fi: Things to keep in mind

Now that you know the Internet and Wi-Fi are two different things, there are a couple of things to consider.

  • Don't use an Internet speed test to determine your Wi-Fi speed. That's because unless you have a Gig+ or Multi-Gig broadband connection (most of us don't!), chances are you won't see your real Wi-Fi speed.
  • Don't use a Wi-Fi speed test to determine your Internet speed. That's because if you have Gig+ or Multi-Gig Internet, your Wi-Fi might be the bottleneck. (Check out this post on how to test Wi-Fi or the Internet.)
  • If you have slow Internet, then even the fastest Wi-Fi router won't make it any faster.
  • If you have a superfast Internet, most Wi-Fi routers won't make a difference unless you get one of the Multi-Gig-ready routers.
  • Make sure you know which to fix when you're offline. It can be the modem or the Wi-Fi router. Picking the wrong one is always a waste of time.

And most importantly, again, keep in mind "Internet" and "Wi-Fi" are not the same things, and know when folks use one to mean the other.

For example, kids, if your mom tells you to get that thing done or she'll "turn off Wi-Fi," most definitely she means the "Internet." But don't tell her that -- not right away -- do whatever she says first! She needs your attention.

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4 thoughts on “Internet and Wi-Fi: A Popular Tech Case of Mistaken Identity”

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  1. Long time reader – thanks for the great resource.
    Really clear explanation – I can understand how normal people might get confused but it’s inexcusable when “tech experts” or newspapers do the same!


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