For years now, the term Wi-Fi has often been synonymous with internet. When people say they have "Wi-Fi" at home, it means they have broadband internet connection. And when you're traveling, free Wi-Fi is understood as free internet. When you know the difference between Wi-Fi and internet connections, it becomes easier for you to troubleshoot problems at home, purchase the right equipment for your network, and most importantly, understand the risk of using a free Wi-Fi network.
Wi-Fi is simply an alternative to network cables as a way to connect devices of a local area network (LAN). Before Wi-Fi the only way to connect devices together was to run physical network cables between them, which can be inconvenient. A Wi-Fi network is basically a wireless local network.
To connect a home Wi-Fi network to the internet, the router needs to be connected to an internet source, such as a broadband modem, via its WAN port. When this link is complete, the Wi-Fi signal of the local network will also provide a connection to the internet for any device connected to the network. So, Wi-Fi is just one way to bring the internet to a device. And this also explains why sometimes your Wi-Fi signal is at full strength, yet you still can't access the internet.
Generally known as the wide area network (WAN), the internet connects computers from around the world. In reality, the internet actually connects many local networks together, via a ton of routers.
Internet speed has progressively increased in the last decade. Ten years ago, a fast-residential broadband connection generally capped somewhere between 1.5Mbps to 20Mbps; now it's between about 50Mbps to 150Mbps and even faster.
That said, most of the time, the speed of the internet is still slower than that of a wired local network. For a Wi-Fi network, the speed of the local network depends on the standards used by the Wi-Fi router and the connected users, and can sometimes be slower than a fast broadband wired internet connection.
YOU CAN BE CONNECTED TO WI-FI, BUT NOT THE INTERNET
Just because you have Wi-Fi doesn't necessarily mean you have internet access. Also, having a strong Wi-Fi signal doesn't always translate into fast internet speed. In fact, to know how fast your internet speed is, in most cases, you need to test it independently from Wi-Fi. Keep in mind that if you use Wi-Fi to share the internet, then it's the internet speed that you want. Wi-Fi is just the vehicle that carries internet to your device.
THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT FREE WI-FI USAGE
- Most importantly, when you're connected to an unknown Wi-Fi network, remember that because you need to access their router to get on the internet, the owner of that Wi-Fi network can potentially see all the information you're sending and receiving, including usernames and passwords.
- When using free Wi-Fi, unless you're accessing a secure website (one in which the address, or url starts with https) don't type in any sensitive information. Refrain from doing any online banking using free Wi-Fi.
- Public Wi-Fi from known entities, such as an airport or an office, is generally more secure than a Wi-Fi network at a random cafe. An open Wi-Fi network, one that requires no password or agreement of terms of service to use, is the riskiest.