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What’s the difference between Wi-Fi and internet?

Alex Sheehan
AS
Alex Sheehan

Mar 21, 2020 — 3 min read

They're often used interchangeably, but there are clear differences between the two.

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We use the terms “Wi-Fi” and “internet” interchangeably. And you might be surprised to find out these two words actually mean two different things. 

Though you won’t earn any social points for pointing out misuse of the term, there are a few reasons why it’s helpful to know the difference between Wi-Fi and internet and when it matters.

What is the internet?

The internet — a collaborative invention between Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf — is an intangible cloud made of all the content that exists across the World Wide Web. We call this the wide-area network, or WAN for short. Internet content includes social media, Google, your text messages, even all those selfies you hope no one ever sees. 

You can connect to the internet with various devices — smartphones, computers, routers, smartwatches, security cameras, etc. — to access existing content as well as add new content to the internet. 

What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is a local area network (LAN). The term was dubbed by the Wi-Fi Alliance to refer to wireless networks that allow devices to access and connect to the larger internet. 

What is the Wi-Fi Alliance? Here’s a brief history lesson to get you up to speed: “In 1999, several visionary companies came together to form a global nonprofit association with the goal of driving the best user experience, regardless of brand, using a new wireless networking technology. In 2000, the group adopted the term ‘Wi-Fi®’ as the proper name for its technical work and announced its official name: Wi-Fi Alliance®.”

Fun fact: While it’s commonly believed that Wi-Fi stands for wireless fidelity, this is actually false. It’s just a fun term inspired by the word “wireless.”

Wi-Fi vs. internet

While the internet is this big invisible entity, Wi-Fi is the vehicle that gets you there. The internet spans globally — it consists of literally every single device, file and person who is connected in any way, hardwired or wireless. Wi-Fi is more local — you might use a home Wi-Fi network or connect to a Wi-Fi network in your local area, such as a hotel, restaurant or other public places. 

As such, you really only have control over Wi-Fi. Comparatively, you’re either connected to the internet or you’re not. You can’t change or manipulate the internet. In other words, you can set passwords, usage controls, range and access points for a Wi-Fi network. You can even upgrade your router for better connections. While you can upgrade your internet speeds and type of connection, that’s pretty much the end of your options — and it’s up to your internet service provider (ISP) to adjust accordingly. 

Let’s create a metaphor to help us understand all this tech jargon: Imagine we’re likening web traffic to traveling from point A to B in the physical world. The internet is the world, home to all of the destinations we can choose from. Wi-Fi is the transportation, how we get from our original location to our final destination. 

Why does it matter?

Sure, you can still use the terms interchangeably in casual conversation, but there are circumstances under which it’s helpful to know the difference between Wi-Fi and internet. For example, setting up your new network in a new home — you need to subscribe to the internet before you can set up your Wi-Fi network. It’s also helpful to know when purchasing devices, like routers and modems.

Essentially, your ISP sets up the internet, and your router sets up the Wi-Fi. 

It’s also helpful to understand when determining your internet speeds. If you need a fast connection, you’ll need to subscribe to the corresponding bandwidth with your ISP as well as get a router that can handle high-speed networks. 

When your internet is slow, you can self diagnose and check whether the Wi-Fi connection is slow or if it’s the hardwired internet connection. Taking a few minutes to troubleshoot yourself can save you a lot of frustration and time on the phone with support. 

Now, you can confidently recite the answer to the question, “Is Wi-Fi and internet the same thing?” 

Make the most of your home network

With a little bit of extra knowledge and know-how, it’s easy to optimize your home network for better speeds, improved security and enhanced performance.

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