Wi-Fi, 3G and 4G: What's the difference?

  • Why Wi-Fi and Wireless are completely different
  • 3G and 4G - same thing, different speeds
  • Mobile Broadband and LTE

Many customers ask for Wi-Fi when they mean Wireless. This seems like a simple mistake or slip of the tongue, but when calling a provider, it can lead to getting a product that you don’t want.

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is not a separate method for providing internet from a carrier to your computer. Rather, it’s a technology that is fitted into the modem that receives a signal from an ADSL or Cable connection. Rather than transmit that connection via another cable to your computer, the Wi-Fi chip will enable your modem to re-broadcast the signal around the house to any device with another Wi-Fi chip in it- that’s most laptops, smartphones and tablet computers.

Even printers and media players have Wi-Fi chips in them now, opening up a range of possibilities - like wireless printing to another room, or short range sharing of content from your computer to your television, without cables. The best simile is to think of a portable phone – it looks a lot like a mobile phone, but it isn’t. It’s wireless to a limited range, within a few dozen metres of a base station. In the case of Wi-Fi, the computer/tablet is like the handset, and the modem is like the base station.

So, we know there's a way to push a voice call a short way over the air (portable phone), and a long way over the air (mobile phone). There's a smiliar way to push internet data a short way over the air (Wi-Fi). Is there a way to push internet data a long way over the air?

Mobile Broadband

Mobile Broadband is synonymous with Wireless broadband (with a capital W). It is a mobile technology that pushes internet data over a cellular network at speeds that qualify as broadband. The modem is often a small USB device that looks like a memory stick, or a little box that can re-transmit that signal over Wi-Fi.

This seems like a perfect option in a country like Australia, which has a massive, difficult and sparsely populated terrain, and a well established network of mobile phone towers. And in fact, that’s all mobile broadband is – if you look at a mobile phone tower, you may be able to spot a small satellite dish, about 40cm across. This is a powerful 3G Antenna. It transmits data the same way your phone calls are transmitted, and so it’s placed in the same spot.

3G

What does 3G mean? 3G refers to 3rd Generation. This classification system refers to mobile data technology, and breaks it down to mobile phone calls as 1st generation, text messaging and picture messaging as 2nd generation, and sub-broadband data and internet as 2.5 generation. 3G refers to broadband internet over the airwaves. For the record, broadband speeds are legally classified as speeds above 256kb/sec, though this definition will probably adjust upwards in the future. Many people consider broadband speeds to be anything above 1500kb/sec.

This sounds like the best solution, right? It is, in theory. Like with mobile phone calls, the quality is affected by range, the presence of mountains and weather. A city is a rapidly changing landscape, and a mobile service may work well today and have a big building in the way tomorrow. Telstra, Optus and Vodafone have their own networks of mobile towers that provide this service.

Most other providers will provide mobile broadband, but usually they are reselling the Optus network, and otherwise competing on price and gigabyte allowance. MyNetFone resells the Vodafone network. Telstra jealously guards its mobile network and does not offer it for resale through other carriers - with good reason. The NextG network runs on a different technology, and across a much wider network, making it the premium provider for now.

The market is fragmented and competitive, with a range of prices and data allowances. But most data allowances are small to prevent network overloading, and expensive, as the technology isn’t quite there yet. For many people, however, this is the only broadband connection available. It is also more convenient than a wired connection, quicker and cheaper to set up, and easier to manage. But for now, it's the least preferable option for people using their connection at home, who require better value and more stable performance.

These are the main technologies in widespread use at the moment, though there are others that are on the table, or in use in limited capacities.

4G

4G is the next generation of wireless, high speed internet technology. But where to go from here? Telstra uses a different part of the spectrum than the other providers, which explains their superior coverage. But it’s still basically a radio service, making it subject to disruption in a way that makes it untenable for an always on connection. Isn't there a form of wireless data delivery that penetrates walls, travels far and wide, and has historically been so good that even a coat hanger could pick up a decent signal? Why yes! The television spectrum!

The move from analogue to digital television has been mandated by several governments for exactly this reason – to open up this chunk of powerful radio spectrum for internet data delivery. There will be a literal auction for this space in the future, with chunks going to high bidders – and though Telstra and the NBN will be in there, they might be up against some big international players, including Google and Apple. Exciting stuff!

Long Term Evolution

This is a very general term to refer to anything that represents a big leap from what exists right now. When you see it, take it with a grain of salt.

WiMax

Wi-Fi is a bit more stable than mobile broadband, but only goes short distances from a base station that is tethered to a cable or copper line. In a world where everyone and everything is a short distance away, a small chain of Wi-Fi devices working off each other can turn one modem into a feed for several devices and people. If you’ve ever ‘shared’ (ie. stolen) your neighbour’s Wi-Fi connection, you know how this works. This method is also used in many hotels, restaurants and public spaces. It’s a low cost, efficient way of sharing a powerful and stable connection with many people. The speed goes down the more people get on it, but that can be managed through passwords and other measures.

So why not a widespread Wi-Fi network, connecting a few dozen people at a time, to a local hardwire connection? There are some simple answers: it’s expensive, people move around a lot, and Australia is a very, very big place, with some long distances in between. Some companies have come and gone trying to offer this solution, and it does work in small doses in other places (crowded cities with a comprehensive fibre network underneath it, like Seoul or Tokyo) but overall, it will likely remain a small player.

Satellite would seem to be another option, but it's unlikely to become widespread due to cost, unreliability and difficulty with maintenance. However, there are small test communities around Australia and the world where a large (like, house-sized large) satellite dish is  connected to an underground fibre optic network.This would be handy in communities that are from a central communications grid.

For now, make sure that any search for a broadband provider takes into account what’s available to you, first and foremost. Once you’ve used our plan wizard to narrow down the providers that suit you, call the provider or Compare Broadband (1300 106 571) for a coverage check to get started.