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Wi-Fi networks vs. Mobile networks: an explainer

The internet is now an integral part of our daily lives, but for many of us, how we connect to it remains shrouded in mystery.

Perhaps you had an expert set up your phone or home network and things have been running smoothly since. Perhaps a more tech-savvy family member helps you connect to your phone, laptop, desktop computer or smart TV. Or perhaps you still find yourself constantly plagued by an inability to connect. 

For those who haven’t yet mastered the ins and outs of Wi-Fi and mobile networks, this primer is the perfect place to start.

Wi-Fi vs Mobile networks 

One of the key things to understand about connecting to the internet is the difference between a Wi-Fi network and a mobile network (such as 4G or 5G).

Don’t worry too much about the exact origin of the term “Wi-Fi” – it’s mostly just a pun on the word “hi-fi”. In truth, the “Wi” is the key part, because it does indeed refer to a wireless internet connection. 

What makes Wi-Fi unique, though, is that it’s a connection that comes from a modem installed in your home or office (or maybe in a cafe you often visit, or a library, or an airport – you get the picture).

Wi-Fi networks are represented by the Wi-Fi symbol, which you’ll recognise as a dot with curved lines radiating from it (pictured above). If you see this symbol at the top of your smartphone screen, then you know you’re connected to Wi-Fi.

The first time you try to connect to a Wi-Fi network, you’ll usually have to enter a password, which is generally found at the back of your modem.

However, once you’ve entered that password the first time, the network usually recognises your device in the future and allows it to connect automatically.

That said, the range of a Wi-Fi network is very small. Once you leave your home, you won’t be able to connect to your home Wi-Fi network anymore.

At that point, you’ll probably notice the symbol at the top of your phone screen has changed to 3G, 4G or 5G. These are mobile networks  – wireless connections that come from mobile phone towers – and your smartphone is able to connect to them without a password.

The “G” stands for Generation. A few years ago, 3G (Third Generation) was the fastest mobile network we had. Then, that was surpassed by 4G, and more recently, 5G (yes, you guessed it – even faster) is becoming more common.

These mobile networks have a much wider range than Wi-Fi networks, so you’ll be able to connect to the internet even if you’re several kilometres away from the nearest tower.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

That depends on what kind of device you’re using. A laptop or smart TV, for example, can only connect to a Wi-Fi network – it doesn’t have the ability to connect to a mobile network like a smartphone, or a tablet with mobile connectivity, can.

If you try to use your laptop on the train, for example, you won’t be able to connect to the internet unless you have a portable modem to provide a Wi-Fi connection. (Note: There is a handy workaround to this rule – read more under our "Personal Hotspots" heading below – but we won't complicate things for now!)

Your smartphone, on the other hand, will be able to connect the internet whether there is a Wi-Fi connection or not, because these days mobile networks are pretty much everywhere – the exception being when you’re out of reach of a mobile tower, such as in very remote locations or an underground parking lot.

It’s also good to be aware that your mobile phone plan generally has a limit on how much mobile data you can use, and once you go past that data limit things can become quite expensive.

That’s why when you’re doing something that’s quite data-heavy – watching videos is an obvious example – then it’s best to connect to a Wi-Fi network, which usually allows much higher data limits than mobile networks.

The downside of Wi-Fi is that, occasionally, the network can be slow or drop out completely. If you’re ever at home and notice that the Wi-Fi symbol on your smartphone screen has switched to a 4G or 5G symbol, that could mean that your Wi-Fi connection has stopped working and you’re now connected to a mobile network instead. It could also mean that you’ve switched off the Wi-Fi option on your phone by mistake.

Remember, it’s always good to be aware of what kind of network you’re connected to so you don’t exceed your data limits.

Personal Hotspots

We mentioned earlier that there is a handy workaround if you want to use your laptop in a public place but don't have access to Wi-Fi. It's known as the "Personal Hotspot", and it comes as standard on most modern smartphones.

By going into your phone's Settings and switching on your Personal Hotspot, your smartphone itself becomes a modem – meaning it takes your phone's mobile network connection and, like magic, turns it into a Wi-Fi connection to which you can connect your laptop.

Once you've switched on your Personal Hotspot, take note of the Wi-Fi password, and then you'll see your phone's name appear on your laptop's Wi-Fi network list. Enter the password, and voila – you're connected to the internet!

It's important to remember, however, that if you choose this option, you'll still be using your mobile network data, which – as mentioned above – can get costly very quickly. It's best to use Personal Hotspots only for non-data-heavy activities such as word processing, emailing and website browsing.