Ask Techland: What’s the Importance of Wi-Fi on a Smartphone?

  • Share
  • Read Later

The Question:

What exactly is Wi-Fi and if I have it on my phone, what does that mean for using my phone any differently?

The Answer:

Good question. Fair question. One that deserves an answer.

If you’re at a cocktail party full of nerds and you’re looking to get into a slap fight, feel free to casually suggest that Wi-Fi is short for “Wireless Fidelity”—a term used in some of the early marketing lingo, but believed to have been disassociated from Wi-Fi in recent years.  As far as anyone else is concerned, Wi-Fi is basically what you get when you plug your Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon FiOS, DSL or any other sort of home internet connection into a wireless router.

(MORE: Ask Techland: What’s the Deal with 4G? Is the New iPhone 4G?)

A standard cable internet setup like you’d get with Comcast, for instance, consists of a modem that’s connected to the cable outlet in the wall at one end, and your computer at the other end.

My cable modem, hidden behind my printer amidst a sea of wires where nobody will ever find it.

But let’s say you have more than one computer. Or a computer and a tablet. Or a computer and a tablet and a Chumbie and a wireless photo frame and a netbook and an iPod Touch and a wireless e-book reader and a Roku box. You need a way to share your home internet connection with all those things at once, since your cable modem only has one connection.

To do that, you can buy a wireless router. They cost around $40 or so and basically covert your single cable internet connection into a wireless connection that can be used by any device with a Wi-Fi chip inside—and just about every “connected” device nowadays has a Wi-Fi chip. Some internet providers even give you a combo modem and wireless router, too.


My wireless router, hidden behind my TV amidst a sea of wires where nobody will ever find it.

So you can use your phone’s Wi-Fi chip to connect to your home internet connection, right? But why bother when your phone already has an internet connection to Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T or whatever service you use? Two main reasons:

First, your home internet connection is often much faster than your cellular internet connection. So you’ll be able to surf the web and download apps much more quickly.

Second, and most importantly, your cell phone internet connection (likely) isn’t unlimited, whereas your home internet (likely) is. If you use too much of your cell phone’s connection, you could be charged overage fees. Bad ones. Big ones. Like getting punched in the midsection, but slightly lower. And you’re in the dark so you don’t see it coming.

The (slight) downside of using your phone’s Wi-Fi chip is that you have to configure it a bit, whereas the cellular connection “just works” while you’re in your provider’s coverage area. My advice to anyone who has a smartphone with a data plan is to always connect your phone via Wi-Fi to your home network—you’ll only need to set it up once and every time you’re at home, your phone will use Wi-Fi—and then connect it via Wi-Fi anywhere else you spend a lot of time, like work or school or your best friend’s house. Your work, school, and/or best friend will have to have a Wi-Fi network you can connect to, of course.

Then while you’re moving around from place to place, use the phone’s cellular connection. You may find that by using Wi-Fi as much as possible, you can drop down to a less-expensive data plan for your cell phone. AT&T has one starting at $15, for instance, which is cheap but can get really expensive if you go over your data limit. On the other hand, Sprint’s data plans are unlimited, so there’s not as much to worry about—but even so, using a Wi-Fi connection whenever possible will most often result in faster, more reliable internet access.

MORE: Ask Techland: Best iPhone 4S Plans by Carrier