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Wireless Broadband: Wireless internet and Wi-Fi explained

wireless transmissions/istock/chombosanWireless broadband is a connection that doesn't use cables. Sounds simple enough, but to confuse matters the term can be used to refer to both Wi-Fi networking, or the broadband service itself.

If you’re not clear on the difference, or are thinking about getting wireless broadband but not sure if it’s right for you, then all will be made clear here.

Is wireless broadband the same as Wi-Fi?

When we talk about wireless broadband it can mean two different things.

Wi-Fi networking is the very useful tech wizardry which lets us get internet access or share files without running cables around our home.

Wireless broadband can be a way to for internet service providers (ISPs) to deliver internet access without having a line connected to your home. That can be useful if you live in an area without fixed line broadband, or you want internet without a phone line.

Wi-Fi wireless broadband

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

There's a good chance you already have Wi-Fi in your home, and there are thousands of public Wi-Fi hotspots found in restaurants, pubs and other locations around the UK. But the broadband connection itself is probably not wireless, and is most likely supplied via an Openreach (BT) telephone line or Virgin Media network cable.

To learn more about Wi-Fi and how to use it we have a comprehensive guide to Wi-Fi which goes into a lot more detail. 

Wireless routers

In order 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 which 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 in many scenarios as it’s so easy to setup and use, and means we can get internet without having cables running everywhere. But there are some downsides too.

Wi-Fi advantages

  • Very easy to setup 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

Wi-Fi disadvantages

  • Signal can be blocked by walls or appliances
  • Some homes may require signal boosters or extensions
  • Wired connections can be faster and more reliable
  • Very easy to hack if not properly secured (and even then it is vulnerable)
Internet and network - what’s the difference?

In the context of home broadband, a network is the local area network (LAN) in your home, which is what we use to share devices, files, and internet access. When you connect to Wi-Fi at home you’re connected to your home network. Using the network hosted by your Wi-Fi router you can do things like access a printer from another room, swap files between computers, stream media from one computer to another, or play network games against each other.

The internet is a network of networks, which provides access to a vast number of devices and resources around the world. In general your home network and the wider internet are kept separate from each other for security reasons (because you don’t want just anyone from the wider internet getting in) except when a specific device or service needs to go into or out of your home network.

Wireless broadband and wireless ISPs

Wireless broadband may also be used to refer to wireless ISPs (WISPs) which deliver internet access with a wireless connection instead of a fixed line. The term wireless broadband does not describe a specific technology as WISPs can use different methods to provide their services.

If you’re interested in getting internet from a WISP you might encounter terms like FWA, mobile broadband or satellite broadband. But what do these mean in the context of home broadband, and what are the differences between them?

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA)

Fixed Wireless Access ISPs use wireless transmissions to provide internet access without having to install cabling. FWA is a broad term, not a specific technology; FWA ISPs may use various methods including Wi-Fi, WiMAX (a long range wireless standard) and 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 which require payment to access. 

Unlike FWA a public hotspot is not setup 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 transmit over short distances.

Mobile broadband and 5G

Mobile broadband can be used at home in place of a fixed line service. Home broadband via mobile networks is offered by several providers, including Three and EE. Any mobile broadband service can be used at home of course, though the relatively low data limits can be restrictive. If you’d like to know more read our guide to using mobile broadband at home.

While the use of mobile broadband at home is not very common right now, we may see this become far more popular in the near future as 5G mobile internet can be faster than most home broadband services. 

Satellite broadband

Rather than relying upon ground-based transmitters, satellite broadband uses orbiting relays to provide broadband access via dishes on the ground which receive and transmit the data signals.

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

Should I get fixed line or wireless broadband?

Wireless broadband advantages

  • Get broadband without a phone or other fixed line
  • Can be faster than many fixed line broadband services
  • May be quicker and easier to setup
  • Can provide fast internet in areas where there is no broadband access

Wireless broadband disadvantages

  • Relies on a strong signal
  • Signal can be affected by the weather
  • May have higher latency than fixed line access (especially satellite broadband)
  • Can be more expensive to setup and use than other types of broadband
  • Unlimited data may not be available, or could be very expensive
  • Limited number of ISPs compared to fixed line broadband

Fixed line broadband using ADSL or fibre optic technology from ISPs such as BT, TalkTalk, Virgin, and Sky is the best option for most people. These are reliable, affordable, and often unlimited services that almost everyone can get.

Wireless broadband ISPs tend to fill a niche, covering gaps in the fixed line networks. If you find that your fixed line broadband access is very slow or non-existent then a WISP may be the ideal solution.

There are few reasons to choose wireless over fixed line if both are available. A WISP does have the advantage of not needing a telephone line or cable so may be preferable if you can’t get or don’t want a phone line. But consider the cost implications as installation, setup and running costs may be higher than the price of fixed line broadband including phone line rental.

Frequently Asked Questions about wireless broadband

Can I still get Wi-Fi if I have wireless broadband?

Getting broadband wirelessly has no impact on using Wi-Fi for networking and sharing the connection. The WISP gives you an internet connection - how you manage that once it’s in your home or office is up to you.

But you should check with the ISP about what kind of equipment is included. Some WISPs may provide a Wi-Fi router with integrated modem, others might only supply a modem which will have to be connected to a standalone Wi-Fi router to enable wireless networking.

I just want Wi-Fi at home - do I need to buy wireless broadband?

It is not necessary to choose a wireless ISP in order to use Wi-Fi in your home.

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 beginner’s introduction to Wi-Fi and a guide to buying your own Wi-Fi router.

Who offers wireless broadband?

There aren’t as many wireless providers compared to the vast choice of fixed line home broadband providers, but you should still be able to find something to fit your needs. In many cases a wireless ISP will be serving a small area (often focusing on rural communities) but there are WISPs offering national coverage too.

Some WISPS include:

Can I use Wi-Fi hotspots for wireless broadband?

It might be tempting to use a public hotspot instead of paying for home broadband, but if the hotspot is a free public service offered by a pub, cafe, restaurant, library, etc, it is intended for use by customers and visitors and you should not use it as your personal broadband service. There are also security issues with public Wi-Fi which could put you at risk from hackers.

There are paid public hotspot networks which can be used in place of a regular broadband connection. They can be reasonably good value (BT Wi-Fi starts from £15 per month for unlimited access on a 12 month contract) but keep in mind that you’re only getting a wireless internet connection with no control over the router, no other way to connect to the internet, and no guarantee of speed.

Is Wi-Fi secure?

There are issues you need to be aware of when using Wi-Fi, though it is fairly easy to provide a base level of security, which is all a typical home user should need. 

Your home Wi-Fi network should always be password protected, and you should set a unique password for the admin account which controls access to the router’s settings. 

Read our guide to securing Wi-Fi for more help.

Is wireless broadband secure?

In general, wireless broadband is no more secure or insecure than any other type of internet connection. The threats you face will most likely be the same ones facing any other internet user, so you should take the usual precautions (such as using strong passwords, and never sending or storing sensitive data with sites and services which are not encrypted). 

While getting your broadband service from a wireless transmission does theoretically open up the possibility that the signal could be intercepted, in reality this would not be something a regular user should ever have to worry about; if you’re at risk of being deliberately targeted by hackers or government agencies capable of pulling off such an attack then you need to seek the advice of professional security specialists.

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, though you also need to bear in mind that Wi-Fi speeds are also impacted by factors such as signal strength and how many other devices are using the network.

The latest Wi-Fi 6 standard (aka 802.11ax) has a theoretical transmission speed of up to 10Gbps, though in practice you’re going to find it’s much slower than that. 

If you have any reasonably modern Wi-Fi router supporting Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) or Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) then your Wi-Fi connection can probably send data at a higher speed than your broadband service.

For more information about Wi-Fi speeds and standards read our beginner’s guide to Wi-Fi

How fast is wireless broadband?

The speed of a wireless broadband varies wildly depending on the technology. Many FWA ISPs advertise a download speed around 30Mbps though some can offer up to 100Mbps, or even faster. Satellite broadband usually offers between 30-40Mbps, and the latest 5G mobile broadband connections can deliver in excess of 500Mbps.

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