Wi-Fi and 4G represent two different technologies for accessing the Internet. They are similar in that they provide wireless network access. This allows users to go online without having to physically connect their browsing devices to a router. Wi-Fi and 4G differ in the systems they use to provide their connections. These differences lead to further distinctions in terms of availability, speed and the ultimate pros and cons associated with the two technologies.
Wi-Fi technology requires a wireless router and a device with a wireless antenna. The router accesses the Internet via a physical connection such as an Ethernet cable. When a user with a device containing a Wi-Fi antenna logs on to the network and attempts to access the Internet, the router translates the requested information from the Internet into a radio signal and broadcasts it. The process works the opposite way as well, with the device translating data into a radio signal and broadcasting it to the router, which, in turn, translates it back into data and sends it to the appropriate location on the Internet.
Similar to Wi-Fi, 4G encodes data into radio signals that allow mobile devices to connect to the Internet; except with 4G, the devices communicate with cell towers rather than routers. Another difference is that users must subscribe to a 4G carrier and pay a monthly fee to access the network. In the United States there are three different 4G network technologies, each of which is supported by different carriers. The networks are Verizon's Long Term Evolution (LTE), Sprint's WirelessMAN-Advanced (WiMAX) and T-Mobile and AT&T's Evolved High Speed Packet Access (HSPA+).
According to CNN, the average Wi-Fi speed in the United States is 5 megabits per second. Technically speaking, this means that Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices download information from the Internet at a rate of 5,242,880 bits per second. However this rate tends to fluctuate. Speeds for 4G vary depending on their carrier. HSPA+ has a maximum speed of 42Mbps, while WiMax offers speeds up to 75Mbps. At 300Mbps, the fastest maximum speed belongs to LTE. Average speeds vary depending on the users location, so much so that even an LTE user can experience speeds as low as 1Mbps.
In the case of both Wi-Fi and 4G, the user's mobile device must stay within range of the radio signal providing Internet access in order to stay connected. The difference is that 4G has a broader range than a Wi-Fi single. The signal from a Wi-Fi router typically extends no further than 100 meters. This is adequate to provide coverage for a home or business. In contrast, 4G signals take advantage of networks of cellular towers, allowing users to connect for miles in any direction of a given tower. There is no exact reliable range as different towers have different capabilities. In some cases users may be in range but still not have service due to an excess of devices attempting to connect via the same tower at the same time.
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