difference between wifi and cellular data

Wi-Fi, cellular minutes and cellular data…I don’t have a clue what it all means!

What’s the difference between wi-fi and data?

Are you lost when people start talking about Wi-Fi, data and cellular networks? Do you know the difference between using Wi-Fi vs. cellular? And why does it matter to you? Understanding the difference between wi-fi and data will help you better tailor how you use your mobile devices to help save you money.

What is a cellular network?

Before the proliferation of smartphones, most people used flip phones. We didn’t have confusion because we could not access Wi-Fi networks from our phones. Our cell phones only worked via connection to cell towers to make calls or send text messages.

Smartphones are little computers we hold in our hands. They allow us to do so much more than making phone calls and text with friends.

To make phone calls, your smartphone connects to cellular networks. Cell networks are all around us. Our phones connect to the antennae placed in our cities, towns, and country-sides. In some areas, those connections are more sparse or harder to reach because of canyons or mountains, and in some they are prolific.

Each carrier is responsible for the construction of their network and the placement of antennae. These antennae connect to satellites in the sky that form the network. It is very expensive for the telephone carriers to build and maintain this cellular network.

How is a cellular network different than Wi-Fi?

Connection to Wi-Fi networks allows us to perform computer-like tasks, such as getting our e-mail, watching/streaming a video, or using the Internet to search for the nearest gas station. Wi-Fi networks are local to where we are. Routers in a room or building emit Wi-Fi signals. Once you are outside of the range of the Wi-Fi router, you have no access to that wireless network.

There is an overlap however, and this is when people get confused. If there is no Wi-Fi network near you, the computer-like things can work by using the cellular data capabilities built into our phone.

Why should I care?

Every time you do something with your smartphone, besides making phone calls, it uses the cellular data portion of your services. If you connect to Wi-Fi, you don’t pay for using data. In addition, doing anything online is faster.

If you do not connect to Wi-Fi, your phone uses cellular data. Cellular data is priced differently than Wi-Fi data because it is more expensive to build and maintain those networks while Wi-Fi carriers can use existing telephone lines and other structural infrastructure. Cellular data sells in smaller packages because of the expense level and thus, what you can do “online” is more limited.

Choosing a Cell Phone Data Plan

There are cell plans that allow “unlimited” use of data and those that have a set data package per month, i.e. 4 GB or 8 GB. Currently, many phone carriers are pushing “unlimited” plans (although, they are not unlimited as they stop allowing access to the high-quality network after using 22-28 GB.) It is important to understand how you use your phone to know if you need to spend more money on higher data plans.

Unlimited plans are good if:

  • you travel or are not home a lot, AND
  • don’t have regular access to a safe, secure private Wi-Fi network, AND
  • if you use the “computer” functions a lot on your phone, such as Google Maps for directions while driving and watching a lot of videos on YouTube or Netflix.

If you spend a lot of time with a secure Wi-Fi connection or make phone calls most of the time, then it is likely not worth spending the money on a large cellular data plan.

Every month your phone bill breaks down the number of minutes you use for calls, the number of texts, and the amount of data you are using. Look at your usage over a 3 – 6-month period. Are you always going over your current data package? Or, do you not get anywhere close to those limits? Do your research and choose a plan that fits your needs, so you are not paying more than you need to.

Still confused? The Tech Wizard provides iPhone classes that teach about these concepts and more. Check out the class schedule.


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