Wi-Fi or Cellular Data

The Computer Corner

Charles Miller

More and more people today are using smart phones to access the Internet, and the fact that these devices are able to utilize two completely independent connection technologies has predictably led to some confusion. When you see someone sitting at the coffee shop busily typing away with two thumbs, they could be texting or emailing using either Wi-Fi or cellular data. There are huge differences in both the usable range and in the cost between these two methods of getting online, so it behooves every smart phone user to have a basic understanding of the differences.

Your cell phone provider provides cellular data and your cell phone plan most likely includes a certain quantity of cellular data along with a certain number of minutes for voice. You want to keep an eye on how much cellular data you use because one of my clients told me that his teenage daughter ran up a bill of US$800 in one month surfing Facebook. Wi-Fi would have been free.

Cellular data is as ubiquitous as cellular voice and would appear to be available almost everywhere. This is because a typical cell phone has enough power to reach a cell tower as much as 50 kilometers away, depending on topography and atmospheric conditions. Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is short range, generally limited to the room where the modem or router is located and sometimes adjoining rooms. Theoretically, Wi-Fi technology can send a signal 10 kilometers or more, but only with special antennas on both ends of the connection. Because Wi-Fi is basically free, people look for a way to improve its range and avoid expensive cellular data charges.

A popular misconception is that the strength of a Wi-Fi signal is important. It is not unimportant, but the fact of the matter is that signal strength is a secondary consideration. Amplifying Wi-Fi signals is something that is not done because it would not work. My neighbor’s maid plays a portable radio at high volume while she works; I can hear it through the wall but it is garbled and unintelligible. The same thing would happen to an amplified Wi-Fi signal. This is why there is no such thing as a high-powered router.

On the website of the US Federal Communications Commission (fcc.gov), you can find the “Declarations of Conformity and Regulatory Information” listing data that manufacturers must file with the government in order to get their products certified for regulatory compliance. These data verify the cold hard fact that there is very little difference in power output between different wireless routers; they are all limited to about 50-mill watts output. A more expensive wireless router may have more features but is not more powerful.

Although for some reason this has not stopped a lot of people from believing that to improve their Wi-Fi connectivity all they need to do is buy a stronger router. I never knew where this myth originated, but one day I was in the computer section of a store and overheard another customer asking a salesperson why one router cost twice as much as another. Without batting an eye the employee responded that the expensive one was more powerful and put out a stronger signal. Sigh.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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