The differences between broadband and WiFi


There’s a lot of confusion about the differences between home broadband and WiFi. To many consumers, they’re one and the same. Yet the distinctions between these two internet-based data distribution methods are significant. If you’re going to negotiate a new contract with an internet service provider (ISP), or attempt to troubleshoot technical problems, understanding these terms is vitally important.

Defining broadband

Broadband is a catch-all term for a domestic internet connection. It’s gradually replaced dial-up internet, which was the precursor to modern high-speed internet connectivity. Dial-up services were distributed across telephone lines, and many slower broadband services still are, too. If your home internet connection is 65Mbps or less (and we’ll explain what that means in a moment), you’re still receiving broadband through a phone line usually installed and maintained by BT offshoot Openreach.

Alternative methods of internet delivery include full fibre. Here, fibre optic cabling extends from central data servers directly into your home, courtesy of firms like Virgin Media. Either way, ‘broadband’ is simply a term used to denote high-speed data being piped into your home.

Defining data

A binary bit is the smallest form of digital data in existence. It’s either a zero or a one. As such, a solitary bit carries precious little information. Yet when grouped together in their millions or billions, bits contain every instruction each digital device in your home relies on to operate – even hardware that’s not connected to the internet.

Broadband line speeds range from one million bits of data per second (one megabit per second, or 1Mbps) to a billion (1 gigabit per second, or 1Gbps).

Defining WiFi

Once a data cable enters your home, it’s channelled through a gatekeeper known as a broadband router. Every ISP will supply a basic router to new customers, though you can also buy a third-party router to replace the ISP-supplied one. Third-party routers tend to distribute data further, faster and more dependably.

A broadband router transmits data between the network outside your home and web-enabled devices inside it in one of two ways:

  1. Along an Ethernet cable. This hardwired connection stretches from the router to a device, or indirectly through plug socket extensions known as Powerline adaptors.
  2. Wirelessly, through the air. This is WiFi in action, supporting smaller electronics which can’t connect using an Ethernet cable (such as smartphones and tablet devices).

WiFi debuted in 1997, uncoupling phone sockets from the desktop computers that provided our only internet access at the time. Ever since, the universally-adopted WiFi standard has been steadily improved by a global non-profit committee called 802.11. Today’s broadband routers use the latest WiFi 6 protocol – also known as High Efficiency WiFi, because it proactively tackles the network congestion that made older WiFi services prone to sudden slowdowns and momentary dropouts.

Is WiFi as fast as a home broadband connection?

The simple answer is no. If you connect a device to your broadband router via Ethernet, you should achieve the fastest speeds your internet connection can support, with minimal latency (the delay between making a request over the internet and receiving a response back). Even WiFi 6 slows down data’s journey between router and device, due to unavoidable congestion and interference.

If you call your ISP for technical support, they’ll ask you to hardwire a computer to the router before running any tests. WiFi may be the most convenient form of home broadband distribution, but it’s not the fastest – or the most dependable.

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