What is wireless internet (WiFi)?
Wireless internet, or WiFi, is a technology that allows computers, smartphones, printers — even cars and drones — to access the internet without a cable attachment. WiFi wavebands are most useful with line-of-sight use; that is, when there are no walls, pillars or other obstructions between the access point (called a hotspot) and your electronics. Most hotspots have a range of about 60 feet. Overlapping hotspots can increase that range to many square miles.
For in-home use, WiFi allows you to tap into your local area network (LAN) by using a router or other wireless network adaptor, which may be embedded in your laptop or other device. The performance of your WiFi system depends on the equipment you’re using as well as the amount of traffic on that equipment. An average home WiFi system should give you a latency of no higher than 2-4ms, but if you are a gamer or heavy internet user, it could go higher. The speed of your wireless will be determined by the plan you have with your internet provider.
Who uses WiFi?
Anyone can benefit from wireless access. In addition to allowing you access to the internet, your WiFi can also give you the ability to print from any device, sync your music or photo library across devices and more. Your ability to use your WiFi network to do high-bandwidth tasks, like gaming, movie streaming or video editing depends on your ISP (internet service provider) and your WiFi access device. For HD streaming, for example, you’ll need a download speed of at least 8 Mbps (megabits per second). A single video requires at least 3 Mbps.
More than 75% of American households with broadband access use WiFi as their primary means of connecting with the internet. The average household has 6.6 devices connected to their WiFi. Note that the more devices you have connected, the more likely it is that you’ll experience congestion and slow speeds when you are engaged in high-bandwidth activities.
Which companies are wireless internet providers?
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AT&T’s top plan features a 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps) speed at optimal conditions that is blindingly fast for gamers and others who use a lot of bandwidth.
- Advertised download speeds: 100-1,000 Mbps
- Median download speed: 20 Mbps (if you’re using DSL)
- Latency: 33 ms
- AT&T Smart WiFi offers wall-to-wall WiFi with installation of WiFi Gateway and AT&T WiFi extenders
- The fiber-optic network is capable of higher median download speed (not available in all locations)
- No internet usage data caps with Internet 1000 plan
- 30,000 WiFi hotspots nationally
- ASCI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) rating: 69
CenturyLink isn’t available everywhere in the U.S. but features competitive pricing and a “Price for Life” guarantee on some plans.
- Wireless modems available to rent
- Installation fees apply
- CenturyLink @Ease, free with all plans, safeguards against viruses and comes with 24/7 tech support and automatic cloud backup.
- No contracts, and “Price for Life” options protect against rate increases
- ASCI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) rating: 59
Spectrum has a broad range of wireless plans and access to Verizon’s fiber-optic network for both homes and small businesses.
- Advertised download speed: 100-940 Mbps
- No data caps
- Free antivirus and modem with some plans
- No contracts or termination fees
- Uses Verizon Wireless’ network supplemented by 500,000+ Spectrum Wireless hotspots
- ASCI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) rating: 65
Verizon’s fiber-optic network offers equal upload and download times and powerful internet that is great for gamers and households with multiple devices.
- Advertised download speed: 100-940 Mbps
- Median download speed: 78 Mbps
- Unlimited plans: up to 15 and 30 GB, depending on plan
- Latency: 12 Mbps
- Monthly router charge; Installation and taxes may apply
- Fiber-optic network
- Unlimited mobile hotspot 4G LTE data
- Safe WiFi protects your connection on network-enabled devices using a VPN
- Named one of the Best Gaming ISPs of 2019 by PC Magazine
- ASCI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) rating: 71 (first place)
Available in 19 states, Cox offers a whole home WiFi system with modem, WiFi Gateway and optional Pods, allowing you to manage your WiFi in minutes—with 24/7 support if you need it.
- Plans allow you to save money if you bundle WiFi with other services, such as Homelife Automation or security monitoring.
- Access to 650,000 hotspots nationally
- Limit of ten devices connected to WiFi at a time
- Free trials of public WiFi available
- Cox Panoramic Wifi℠ in your home lets guests access the internet through a separate signal, so your own signal doesn’t slow down and remains secure
ASCI (American Customer Satisfaction Index) rating: 62
Pros and cons of wireless internet
- Mobility: your devices work anywhere within reach of your router or hotspot; you aren’t tethered to your desk or one device
- Convenience: multiple devices can be used flexibly with one plan, so that you can do things like send a document from your laptop or tablet to your printer or network from one computer to another
- Speed: may be faster than cable-connected internet access, depending on your ISP and the quality of your router
- No cables: no gathering dust and becoming a safety hazard
- Installation: Can be easier to install than cabled systems
- Security: public WiFi hotspots are notoriously easy to hack, and unless you keep it password-protected or behind a firewall, your in-home wireless system can be used by anyone in close proximity to your home
- Speed and accessibility: these decrease the further you are from the hotspot or router
- Cost: Monthly fees can rise above $100 for systems powerful enough to handle gaming, HD streaming and other high-bandwidth activities
- Interference: it’s possible if multiple people use their devices at the same time
- Coverage: spotty coverage in buildings if there are walls, steel pillars or other structures between you and the router
Frequently Asked Questions
What is wireless internet?
Wireless internet, or WiFi, is a group of technologies that allow you to access the internet without physical cables, by using wireless data connections that link together to form a local area network (LAN).
Who should use wireless internet?
Anyone can benefit from wireless internet, but it’s especially useful for people who have multiple devices in their homes—tablets, consoles, laptops, desktop computers, and other electronics—and want to run them easily and efficiently.
What equipment and installation is needed for WiFi?
Most home WiFi setups use a router, sometimes called a residential gateway, which links to your ISP via a modem and provides access to the internet for all devices connected to it. Larger homes may also need a wireless signal extender, which boosts the power of the router to allow access in a larger area.
Does wireless internet use a phone line?
No. Wireless technology uses radio frequency to connect to the internet. The connection is always live, and can be accessed anywhere within the reach of your router.
How much does wireless internet cost?
Cost varies depending on your ISP and the plan you have chosen. A basic plan will cost around $40-$70/month. Plans that allow for higher download speeds and greater bandwidth will be pricier, and may even reach $100+ per month. Other costs to be aware of are installation fees, equipment rental fees (for a wireless-enabled modem or router) and data cap fees, which come into play if you use more data than your plan allows.
How fast is wireless internet?
Most home networks feature internet speeds that range from 1-500 Mbps—although that number is increasing as the technology improves. But your router may only be able to handle a portion of that, so the quality of router you buy or rent is important. How your ISP connects you with the internet also plays a role: if you have a fiber-optic connection, for example, you’ll generally have faster connection times than if you use DSL or cable.