As an ISP technician, I interact with a lot of people who are having internet-related troubles. While dealing with trouble tickets or service calls, there are some instances of actual problems with internet service or a hardware issue somewhere of course, but the majority of these customer internet problems boil down to a misunderstanding of how internet service, electronics and/or WiFi works. Specifically the latter. This is why I’ve created this post, to try and help clear up this specific point up. Even as an everyday, average internet user with zero technical aspirations, having a better understanding of how WiFi works can significantly improve your experience using the internet in your home.
WiFi vs Internet
WiFi is strongly associated with internet access. That association is so strong that a significant number of people assume that their home’s WiFi is their actual internet service itself. My experience up to 2019 is that this belief is held by those in their 20s to those in their 80s and beyond, though it tends to be more prominent with older individuals who didn’t grow up with WiFi and internet service.
WiFi is separate from internet. You can have WiFi and no internet service, just as you can have internet service with no WiFi. WiFi is simply a conduit or transport vehicle for internet access rather than internet access itself. In a way, your router and WiFi is like a telephone on an old, landline phone system. You can have a phone but no phone service, and you can have phone service, but if your phone is unplugged or somehow not working, you won’t be able to make phone calls, even if your phone service is working perfectly.
Components of internet service
This can get a little murky as there are many different types of internet, and different ISPs provide different hardware, but in general, there are three components to internet service in your home:
Your connection to the ISP
For most people, this is a physical connection by way of wires run to your home. Telephone wires, coax or fiber, if you’re lucky enough to have access to fiber. In other cases, your connection to your ISP is wireless, which is more common in rural areas. Satellite internet and internet service through a mobile phone service provider are types of wireless internet.
A modem is essentially a translator for communications between your router and your ISP. These communications, for the most part, are your internet activity. Web browsing, playing videos, online gaming, etc. The modem takes the signal from your router and turns it into something that will pass through your ISP’s network, then off to the destination somewhere in the world.
A router is basically a small computer that acts as a traffic cop: directing traffic (data, which is internet activity) between devices in your home and your ISP. Much like the name implies, it “routes” traffic between your ISP and devices in your home. Most routers have WiFi, which is just a wireless component of the router. Like mentioned above, your router, and WiFi, are tools used to deliver internet access to devices in your home rather than internet access itself.
In quite a few cases, ISPs either mandate or offer modem/router combo units, which combine a modem and router into a single device. Even though this can add to some confusion, these two-in-one units still provide two distinct functions, as noted above.
Router and WiFi Facts
- No router, no matter how much money you spend on it, can make your internet speed faster than your ISP allows your connection to go. It can only deliver your maximum speed or cause it to be slower.
- Your router’s WiFi may not be as fast as your internet connection. In some cases with 2.4Ghz Wifi especially, you may get less than 5Mbps speed over WiFi, even if you have a much faster internet connection. This is why I recommend you use a dual-band router.
- With a dual-band router, the 2.4Ghz band has better range and penetrates walls and other obstacles better than 5Ghz, but it is also slower and more likely to have problems due to wireless interference.
- If you use the internet for streaming video or online gaming, if possible, use a cat5 / cat6 Ethernet cable rather than WiFi. It will provide the best-possible streaming experience with the lowest-possible latency.
- Routers should be maintained, just like computers and motor vehicles. Software updates for routers help to improve security and in some cases may improve router performance, fix issues that pop up as they age and even may extend the life of a router. An example of a major security flaw that should be addressed with a router update is the WPA2 crack made public in 2017.
- In many cases, the default WiFi settings on routers work to worsen WiFi performance in an area. Though the reasons for that are beyond this post, you may be able to improve your WiFi’s performance by manually managing your WiFi channel selection and lowering your WiFi’s speed or channel-width settings if appropriate for your internet package speed. If you don’t have neighbors, this is less of an issue, but it can be a major problem in populated areas.
Hopefully this helps explain the difference between WiFi and internet service to a small degree. If you have any questions, feel free to post them below.