Wi-Fi vs. Mobile Broadband: What’s the difference?

On December 5th, 2011, posted in: Thinking Smarter

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In a world of “3G, 4G, and mobile hot-spots”, it’s easy to get caught up in acronyms without actually knowing which method is best to connect to. Any portable internet enabled device that supports 3G (soon to be 4g) broadband connection and Wi-Fi actually has three different methods of accessing the internet.

The first method is a true Wi-Fi scenario in which a physical cable from the Internet Service Provider is attached to a wireless router. The router in turn broadcasts the signal to any Wi-Fi enabled device in its proximity. When you access Wi-Fi in your office, you are connecting to the same connection that a wired device would, but in wireless form. If you are connecting to Wi-Fi at a public “hot-spot” like those offered at Starbucks or libraries, you are sharing wireless broadcast of a wired Internet Service Provider connection at that location. Unlike the office, “hot-spots” at these locations do not offer the same protection that the secure, firewalled environment at your office most likely provides. It therefore behooves a user to limit public Wi-Fi usage to non-confidential information. That is not to say that every time you open a document your information will be stolen, just that you are more vulnerable to security threats at public locations.

When using a 3G enabled device like a smartphone or tablet which are not connected to Wi-Fi, the devices are connecting to the internet though a cellular connection. Instead of receiving a signal from a wired Internet Service Provider, the device receives data from a cellular company in the same way it receives a mobile phone connection. 3G as it is called, allows a user to access internet anywhere they receive signal, eliminating dependence on public “hot-spots” for mobile access. Unfortunately, this method is normally noticeably slower than a Wi-Fi connection. Though it is safer than a shared public “hot-spot”, it is not as safe as the firewalled environment in an office.

The third method to access the internet is actually a hybrid of the other two. Certain 3G enabled devices have the capability to supply a Wi-Fi signal. Rather than receiving data from a wired connection, these devices receive a 3G signal from a cellular tower and broadcast it as a Wi-Fi signal which can be accessed by any Wi-Fi enabled device in range. Although the connection appears the same as a regular wireless router on a laptop or tablet accessing it, it is important to recognize where the Internet is actually originating. Wi-Fi signals from a 3G broadcasting device like the Verizon Mi-Fi can provide mobile internet for multiple users, but rely on a wireless 3G (or 4G) signal and are therefore significantly slower than traditional Wi-Fi. This connection is again safer than a public “hot-spot” and is advisable for connecting to confidential elements while on the go.