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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 isn’t so much to another. Case in point: The fact that the Internet and Wi-Fi are two different things.

I’ve received many questions on these two — troubleshooting, speed testing, shopping advice, etc. — where they were presumed to be the same thing or mistaken for each other. It’s frustrating.

A reader recently got mad, sending me a message saying in part, “[…] I bought the Asus RT-AX86U per your review, and my Internet speed didn’t change much. We’re very disappointed with your advance”.

It turned out the gentlemen had horrible broadband service. However, his message was part of the reason I no longer advise on specific situations.

So, this post aims to make it absolutely clear that these are two separate entities. If you already know that, it can still be a good refresher.

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

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.

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 masses, 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 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. Over time, folks lump them together.

And that’s OK in terms of getting that social post published or sending out that email. But you must know the difference to figure out what to buy or repair.

Let’s start with Wi-Fi.

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

Wi-Fi: The wireless alternative to network cables

Before Wi-Fi, network cables were the only way to connect devices within a local area network (LAN). It’s simple. You plug one end of a cable into a device and the other end into your router, and now that device is part of your network. 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 idea 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 full-bar signals yet can’t get to any website, send/receive emails, or stream Netflix, which needs the Internet.

On the flip side, if your router is unplugged, you can’t get online at all, even though your broadband provider assures you that your Internet is fine.

Additionally, getting a faster, better Wi-Fi router won’t make you go online any faster if you have a slow broadband connection.

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 why the Internet is also called the World Wide 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. 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 local network.

And when you use a Wi-Fi router, you have a local Wi-Fi network. Many terminal devices have a modem and Wi-Fi router in one. There’s an official name for a 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), 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 must 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 many 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 a building.Β Β 

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 nearby won’t cut it.

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 is a computer with 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 simultaneously.

In this case, depending on the phone, you’ll see two signal indicators on its screen at the top right or top left corner. 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, you won’t use your cellular data plan if Wi-Fi is available.

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 broadcasts signals via its Wi-Fi adapter to share that access.

You can do that or get a mobile hotspot like 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 remember: 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 differs 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 your Wi-Fi might be the bottleneck if you have Gig+ or Multi-Gig Internet. (Check out this post on how to test Wi-Fi or the Internet.)
  • If you have slow Internet, even the fastest Wi-Fi router won’t make it any faster.
  • If you have 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.

Most importantly, again, keep in mind that “Internet” and “Wi-Fi” are not the same things. Knowing when folks use one to mean the other is helpful in troubleshooting and general understanding of things.

For example, if a venue offers “free Wi-Fi”, well, they mean Internet access. But if they say, “Internet is down”, there’s a chance their Wi-Fi network is broken.

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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!

    Reply

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