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What is Wi-Fi and wireless broadband?

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Wireless broadband is an internet connection that doesn't use cables.

Sounds simple enough, but to confuse matters, the term can be used to refer to home Wi-Fi networks or the broadband service itself.

If you’re not clear on the difference, or you’re considering getting wireless broadband but aren’t sure if it’s right for you, read on.

Wireless broadband: the key points

  • Wireless broadband is an internet service that doesn't use a fixed line
  • Wi-Fi is used in our homes to provide wireless internet, but the broadband itself is most likely delivered over a line
  • Completely wireless broadband services are available in the UK, but the choice of providers and deals is limited
  • Wireless broadband can be useful for rural areas that lack other options

Is wireless broadband the same as Wi-Fi?

Wireless broadband and Wi-Fi are both forms of wireless technology that were designed to make connecting to the internet easier.

Neither require wires and allow you to connect to the internet. This can include the wireless broadband routers and modems you use to connect to the Wi-Fi, or a wireless internet service that your modem connects to.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re the same thing.

Wi-Fi networking is the technology that lets us get internet access or share files without running cables around our homes.

Wireless broadband can be a way for internet service providers to deliver internet access without having a fixed line connected to your home. That can be useful if you live in a very remote area that doesn’t have access to a fixed line network, or you want internet without a phone line.

What is Wi-Fi networking?

When we use the term ‘wireless broadband’, we’re often referring to Wi-Fi networks, where a Wi-Fi router is used to provide internet and local network access to nearby devices without the use of wires.

Almost all broadband deals include a free Wi-Fi router, so you probably already have Wi-Fi in your home! 

There are also thousands of public Wi-Fi hotspots found in restaurants, pubs, and other locations around the UK that you can often use for free.

But the broadband connection itself probably isn’t wireless. It’s most likely supplied via a telephone line, fibre optic line, or a Virgin Media cable broadband network.

Wireless routers

To use Wi-Fi at home, you will need a Wi-Fi router. This not only acts as a gateway to the internet but also hosts a local network and broadcasts a wireless network signal that any compatible, and authorised, device can use to access the broadband or share data over the network.

While you can buy your own Wi-Fi router, they are usually included for free with a new broadband deal.

Wi-Fi is enormously helpful as it’s so easy to set up and use, and means we can get internet without having cables running everywhere. But there are some downsides too.

Wi-Fi advantages and disadvantages
Pros Cons
  • Easy to set up and use.
  • Wi-Fi routers are usually free with broadband.
  • Can provide internet and networking to your entire home without cables.
  • Widely supported by a huge range of devices.
  • Modern Wi-Fi is reasonably fast.
  • The signal can be blocked by walls or appliances.
  • Some homes may require signal boosters or extensions.
  • Wired connections can be faster and more reliable.
  • Easy to hack if not properly secured.

How to set up Wi-Fi

Setting up Wi-Fi access at home is simple. All you need is a Wi-Fi router, which is the key bit of hardware that generates a wireless network.

In brief, here are the steps to setting up Wi-Fi for the first time with a new router: 

  • Hook up your Wi-Fi router by connecting it to the power and broadband connection with the provided wires.
  • Wait for the Wi-Fi network to come online. This can take a couple of minutes and will usually be indicated by a green light on the router.
  • Using a Wi-Fi device, such as a laptop or smartphone, scan for the Wi-Fi network. The default network name will be shown in the router manual or on a sticker attached to the router.
  • Select the Wi-Fi network and enter the password supplied with the router. 

You should now be connected to Wi-Fi!

Wireless broadband and wireless ISPs

Wireless broadband may also be used to refer to wireless internet service providers. These are known as ‘WISPs’. These deliver internet access with a wireless connection instead of a using a fixed-line.

The name wireless broadband doesn’t refer to a specific technology, as WISPs can use different methods to provide their services. For example:

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA)

Fixed Wireless Access providers use wireless transmissions to provide internet access without having to install cabling to each home. FWA is a broad term, not a specific technology. So FWA ISPs can use various methods, including Wi-Fi, 4G or 5G, to deliver the connection.

Public Wi-Fi hotspots

A public Wi-Fi hotspot is a Wi-Fi router offering internet access to anyone in the vicinity. Often these are free services operated by businesses and public organisations for the benefit of customers, though there are also Wi-Fi hotspots that require payment to access.

Unlike FWA, a public hotspot isn’t set up to deliver internet access over a wide area. It often uses the same kind of hardware as a regular home Wi-Fi router and is only meant to serve a small area.

Mobile broadband and 5G

Mobile broadband can be used at home in place of a fixed-line service. If you live somewhere that a fixed-line service isn’t available, this can be a great option.

Any mobile broadband service would work, so long as you have a strong signal. If you plan to switch to mobile broadband, make sure you choose a package that’s been specifically designed for home use and it comes with unlimited data. You can visit our guide to using mobile broadband at home if you'd like to know more.

A service from a 5G mobile network can be faster than many home broadband services, so might actually be a better choice for you

See also:

Satellite broadband

Rather than relying upon transmitters on the ground, satellite broadband uses orbiting relays to provide broadband access via dishes on people’s homes

Satellite broadband’s greatest strength is its ability to work anywhere within the very large coverage footprint, so even the most remote homes can get reasonably fast internet. But the distance between the dishes and the satellites also means that latency can be a problem.

If this is something that interests you, we have a guide to satellite broadband that goes into more detail.

Should I get fixed-line or wireless broadband?

Advantages Disadvantages
  • Get broadband without a landline or other fixed-line.
  • Can be faster than many fixed-line broadband services.
  • May be quicker and easier to set up.
  • Can provide fast internet in areas where there is no other broadband access.
  • Relies on a strong signal.
  • The signal can be affected by the weather.
  • May have higher latency than fixed-line access, especially satellite broadband.
  • Can be more expensive to set up and use than other types of broadband.
  • Unlimited data may not be available or could be very expensive.
  • A limited number of ISPs compared to fixed-line broadband.

 

We recommend that most customers choose a fixed-line, fibre broadband package if one’s available. These are reliable and affordable deals that almost everyone can get.

Wireless broadband internet providers tend to fill a niche, covering gaps in the fixed-line networks. Most people won’t need this as over 98% over properties in the UK have access to a decent, superfast broadband service with internet speeds of at least 30Mb. More than half of properties now can enjoy ultrafast, full fibre broadband.

Frequently asked questions about wireless broadband

  • What is Wi-Fi?

    Wi-Fi is wireless networking technology that allows devices such as computers, tablets, game consoles and smartphones to communicate without a physical link. To use Wi-Fi, you need a Wi-Fi router.

  • What does Wi-Fi mean?

    The term ‘Wi-Fi’ isn’t short for anything. Although it was inspired by the audio term ‘Hi-Fi’, it doesn’t actually stand for ‘Wireless Fidelity’.

    Wi-Fi is the official name, although it’s commonly spelt as ‘WiFi’.

  • I just want Wi-Fi at home. Do I need to buy wireless broadband?

    To get Wi-Fi at home, you only need a Wi-Fi router, which is almost always included with a broadband deal at no extra cost.

    Our guide to setting up Wi-Fi can help you get started. We also have a guide to buying your own Wi-Fi router.

    If you’re interested in finding out more about the kind of Wi-Fi router device you’ll get when you sign up to a new broadband package, check out these router round-ups.

  • Who offers wireless broadband deals?

    There aren’t as many wireless providers compared to the vast choice of fixed-line home broadband providers.

    Wireless ISPs will usually be found serving a small area, often focusing on rural communities, but there are WISPs offering national coverage too.

    Some WISPS include Quickline who use a mix of fibre lines and 5G tech to provide some wireless broadband up in the North of England and Scotland as well some of Wales. There’s also WiSpire in Norfolk that uses church spires and existing masts to connect people in rural locations to the internet.

    If mobile broadband is something you’re interested in, then look into mobile and broadband providers such as Vodafone, EE, and Three.

  • How does Wi-Fi work?

    Wi-Fi transmits data using radio waves, mostly in the 2.4Ghz-6Ghz frequency range.

    This radio signal allows devices to communicate wirelessly.

    The range of a Wi-Fi connection depends on the frequency, transmission power, and environment.

    Using standard Wi-Fi devices, you can expect an indoor range of around 150ft for a 2.4GHz network, going up to around 300ft outdoors. But it’s possible to get a much longer range using directional antennas and more powerful transmitters.

  • Can I use Wi-Fi hotspots for wireless broadband at home?

    It might be tempting to use a public hotspot instead of paying for home broadband. But if a hotspot is a free public service offered by a pub, café, restaurant or library, it’s intended for use by customers and visitors. So you shouldn’t use it as your personal broadband service.

    You should also remember that there are also security issues with public Wi-Fi that could put you at risk from hackers.

    If you want to use a public hotspot, there are paid public hotspot networks you can use in place of a regular broadband connection. They can be reasonably good value and offer lots of flexibility. But remember that you’re only getting a wireless internet connection with no control over the router, no option for a faster and more stable wired network connection, and no guarantee of speed.

  • How fast is Wi-Fi?

    The speed of a Wi-Fi connection depends primarily on the Wi-Fi standard supported by both the router and the connected device. Broadband speeds are also impacted by factors such as signal strength and how many other devices are using the network.

    There’s a standard referred to as ‘Wi-Fi 6’ that theoretically offers download speeds of up to 10Gbps. But in practice, you’ll find it’s much slower than that.

    If you have any reasonably modern Wi-Fi router supporting Wi-Fi 5, then your Wi-Fi connection can probably send data at a higher speed than your broadband service.

  • How fast is wireless broadband?

    The speed of wireless broadband varies wildly depending on the technology.

    Many wireless broadband providers advertise a download speed of around 30Mb though some can offer up to 100Mb, or even faster. Satellite broadband usually offers between 30-50Mb, with some offering 100Mb+. And the latest 5G mobile broadband connections can deliver more than 500Mb, though they typically average around 100-150Mb.

  • What is a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot?

    A Wi-Fi dongle, or mobile hotspot, is a mobile broadband dongle which creates a Wi-Fi network to share its mobile internet connection. This lets you get mobile broadband access on any Wi-Fi device.

    Your mobile phone can often be used as a hotspot, so if you need internet on the go? You can usually connect through your phone.

    See also: 'what is iPhone and Android tethering and how do you use it?'

Expert Summary

Wireless broadband is something that can mean very different things depending on the context.

Most often, when we’re talking wireless broadband it’s referencing home Wi-Fi.

If you’re just interested in Wi-Fi for all your devices, then a fixed-line broadband deal with a free Wi-Fi router is what you need. We suggest you go with a fibre broadband package for the best speeds.

Use our postcode checker to see what’s available in your area.

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However, wireless broadband can also refer to broadband where the internet connection itself doesn’t use wires.

The most common of these will be mobile or Wi-Fi internet, though there are also satellite broadband packages.

Wireless internet can offer decent speeds, and you can get them even in areas that you can’t get fixed-line broadband. So if you live somewhere rural where a fixed-line isn’t possible, these are great options.

Meet the author:

Contributor

Matt has been working with Broadband Genie since 2009. A lifelong tech enthusiast, he has 20 years of experience writing about technology for print and online.


Specialist subject: The technicalities of broadband

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