How Does the Internet Work on Cell Phones?


In the '90s and early 2000s, cell phones offered little if any Internet connectivity. Today, cell phones and other mobile devices outpace desktop computers: A 2014 study by comScore found that 60 percent of time spent with digital media takes place on phones and tablets. In certain categories, including Internet radio and instant messaging, that number climbs to over 90 percent. Whether you use a smartphone or a traditional cell phone, the Internet reaches the phone through one of two routes: a Wi-Fi or cellular connection.

Wi-Fi on Cell Phones

Whenever one is available, a Wi-Fi connection is the best choice for using the Internet on your phone. All major smartphone brands have Wi-Fi support, as do some regular cell phones. Wi-Fi connections have two main advantages: speed and cost. When connected to Wi-Fi, the Internet on your phone runs just as fast as it would on a laptop computer, and you don't have to worry about your cell signal. Just like using the Internet on a laptop, there's no charge from your cell provider for the data your phone uses while on Wi-Fi. Android, iPhone and Windows Phone all have their Wi-Fi options in the Settings app and all default to using Wi-Fi whenever possible.

Wi-Fi options in the iPhone's Settings app.
Wi-Fi options in the iPhone's Settings app. (Image: Image courtesy of Apple)

Cellular Data Connections

When not connected to a Wi-Fi network, cell phones use cell towers to reach the Internet. Just like the calls you place and receive, Internet data travels by radio wave between the phone and the nearest tower. Old phones -- and areas with old cell towers -- have slow Internet speeds closer to dial-up Internet than a modern high-speed connection. Over the years, new technology has improved cellular data speeds. As of publication, the fastest type of cell connection, 4G LTE, can reach speeds of around 30 to 40 Mbps, rivaling a home cable or DSL connection. In practice, however, speeds vary by carrier and often drop far lower in areas with poor reception.

Data Plans

When you use the Internet over a cell connection, every bit of data you upload or download counts toward your data plan. Plans vary in size, offering caps such as 300 MB, 2 GB or 4 GB. If you use more data than your plan allows in a month, your carrier charges an additional fee. Some carriers offer unlimited data plans, but these aren't always as good as they appear, with some cell companies allegedly turning down the speed on high-data users.


  • Smartphones use the Internet more than you might expect. For example, apps with ads contact the Internet to download new ads, using up some of your data plan. To make sure you don't use any data if you're almost at your limit, turn off the cellular data connection on your iPhone, Android or Windows Phone.

Mobile Websites

On Smartphones

No matter if you use Wi-Fi or a cell connection, some websites you load on your smartphone open using a mobile interface rather than showing the same page you'd see on a computer. Mobile sites have a few advantages for cell phones: They tend to use less data, load faster and fit smartphone screens without horizontal scrolling. However, mobile sites don't always have all the features of the full website. Check near the bottom of a mobile page for a link to the full site if you prefer the desktop interface.

Desktop Site link on eHow's mobile website.
Desktop Site link on eHow's mobile website. (Image: Image courtesy of Demand Media)

On Other Cell Phones

Unlike smartphones, which default to using a mobile layout but still support most regular websites, many non-smartphones can only load websites that are specially designed for cell phones. Web pages built with traditional cell phones in mind use little data, sometimes eschewing images entirely. Due to the popularity of smartphones, however, few Web developers bother to build sites that work on traditional cell phones.

A Google search as seen on a traditional cell phone.
A Google search as seen on a traditional cell phone. (Image: Image courtesy of Google)

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