What is the difference between Wi-Fi and Cellular?

To some, the difference between Wi-Fi and cellular data is unclear. Understanding this difference can help with many things, as well as saving hard earned money.

What are Wi-Fi and Cellular Connections?

Wi-Fi and cellular connections work together seamlessly and are simply two different ways to achieve the same thing: give the user access to the Internet.

Mobile phones can use both Wi-Fi and cellular connections. Tablets and laptops may be limited to only Wi-Fi connections.

Some mobile phone plans allow the user to create a Wi-Fi signal using the phone’s cellular connection. This is called a hotspot, and can allow the use of Wi-Fi on a tablet or laptop when it isn’t otherwise available.

The main difference between the two is that Wi-Fi is a local form of internet access, and cellular connections have a much wider range and offer seamless connectivity between cell towers.

What exactly is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi stands for Wireless Fidelity. These are radio waves that are broadcast through the air, providing internet access.

These connections travel through a modem to a router and then through the air. Modern equipment often combines these two devices.

Most Wi-Fi networks are locked and require a password to access. Wi-Fi access can be purchased for your home from a company like XFinity or Verizon, or you might access a network at the library or another public building.

Usually the network usage, i.e. how many gigabytes (GB) of data you send and receive from the Internet, is not monitored in a Wi-Fi connection.

Here is a diagram of the connectivity icons on the top of a cell phone. The left (highlighted in red) is the cellular connection measured in bars and the right (highlighted in blue) is the Wi-Fi connection shown as a kind of radar fan.

What exactly is Cellular?

Cellular connections are also radio waves that are broadcast through the air to provide internet access. These radio waves are provided by cell towers. Cellular service companies maintain their own set of cell towers across the country, or have a contract with another provider. Cellular connections do not require the user to connect to the networks individually. The connection is provided within a cellular plan and the device is able to switch from cell tower to cell tower seamlessly.

The range of a cellular connection is based on connectivity to cell towers in the area.

This allows customers to use the Internet practically anywhere because cellular towers’ range covers most of the US.

Cellular data is also measured in GB and may be metered by the provider or may be provided as an unlimited plan.
The more data downloaded to the phone or uploaded to the Internet, the more GB are used.

Streaming and downloading video for example will consume more gigabytes. Examples of apps that consume more data are Facebook, and video streaming services, including video chatting. Simple browsing of the Internet, and sending and receiving email typically don’t consume much data.

Many phones can show how much cellular data the apps are consuming. They do not measure the data used via Wi-Fi connections. To get accurate results for each billing cycle, the user must reset the data manually.

Cellular Data app tracking has probably not been reset in a while, as these are very large data usages.

Why the difference between WiFi and Cellular matters

If a user does not have an unlimited cellular data plan, then the consumption of data can lead to additional fees.

If a device has a poor connection using either Wi-Fi or cellular, the user can sometimes switch between them to alleviate the issue.

Some phones offer Wi-Fi assist, which will switch automatically from Wi-Fi to cellular data to supplement a poor Wi-Fi connection. Wi-Fi assist can have a negative impact on a user with a low data usage plan, but is useful if that is not a restriction.

For more information about the difference, try this Geeks for Geeks article.

For help with your own situation, or connecting to a specific network, please call us. If you have any questions or our terminology wasn’t clear, please use our contact form to send us a message. Thanks!

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