Understanding Internet Terms

The Difference Between Broadband & Wi-Fi

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The difference between broadband & Wi-Fi

Despite being two different technologies, you have probably heard people using the terms broadband and Wi-Fi interchangeably. It might even have been you complaining that “the Wi-Fi is slow today”, instead of blaming your slow broadband connection. Though the two technologies are closely related, you can’t have Wi-Fi without some type of broadband connection. It is important to understand the difference so it is easier for you to do some basic troubleshooting if you’re unable to connect to the internet, or struggling with speeds far slower than what you signed up for. 

What is broadband?

Broadband is your connection to the internet, it can be via ADSL, fibre, satellite, or mobile services. Regardless of the type of connection used, it involves technology that allows for wide bandwidth data transmission, supporting multiple signals and types of traffic. If you’re old enough to have used dial-up, you’ll remember that you couldn’t make a phone call if you were also connected to the internet, but once you switched to ADSL you could. Perhaps the most significant difference between dial-up and broadband for end users was the speed of data transmission, with broadband offering far greater capacity. However, regulators around the world don’t just consider the technology, some also define broadband based on download and upload speeds. Ofcom in the UK classifies a 10 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream as broadband, but the FCC in the US only accepts a minimum of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up.

A modem router is needed to connect devices in your home to the internet, but with the introduction of mobile broadband and satellite internet, a physical copper or fibre optic line running from your home to a distribution node or cabinet on the street is no longer a requirement. Most modem routers have four or more LAN ports, which allow you to plug devices such as desktop or laptop computers, smart televisions, tablet computers, and more in, using an ethernet cable to access the internet. Meaning it is possible to have broadband internet in your home without having Wi-Fi.

What is Wi-Fi?

In contrast to broadband, to have Wi-Fi in your home requires having a broadband connection, be it satellite, mobile, fibre, or ADSL. Wi-Fi transmits data between a Wi-Fi enabled device and a Wi-Fi access point, using radio waves. Modem routers act as Wi-Fi access points, but Wi-Fi extenders and mesh systems are also considered Wi-Fi access points, as long as they connect to a modem router that is in turn connected to broadband. This allows you to use your Wi-Fi enabled device from anywhere in your home, even outside or as you move from one room to another. Data transmission is bidirectional, so your device isn’t only receiving data from the Wi-Fi access point, it is also transmitting data back to it. Wi-Fi is a user-friendly name for the IEEE 802.11 family of networking standards used by the technology, which continue to be developed and advanced. The latest version is 802.11ax, more commonly referred to as Wi-Fi 6, and it increases the number of connected devices supported.

Why is my Wi-Fi slow?

Most of the time when someone complains that their Wi-Fi is slow, it is in fact their broadband connection. There are a number of factors that contribute to a slow broadband connection, some steps you can take to establish exactly where the problem lies include:

  • First try to load four or five different websites to eliminate the possibility of it only being one particular website that is loading slowly. A single website loading slowly indicates a problem with that site’s server rather than a problem with your internet connection.
  • If all websites load slowly, try loading them again but using a different device to ensure it isn’t the device that is the problem. Rebooting the device or scanning it for malware and viruses could resolve the issue.
  • If neither of the above two steps help, try connecting a computer directly to your modem router using an ethernet cable and performing a speed test. Stop all downloads and streaming activity before doing the test if possible, so there is as little interference as possible. It is the same reason the test should be done on a device that is connected directly to the modem router instead of via Wi-Fi. If the results are way below the speed you signed up for, your next steps could be:
    • Rebooting your modem router and if installed, the nbn® connection box. Do this by unplugging the power supply for both devices for about 10 seconds before reconnecting. Wait until both devices have restarted and reconnected before running a speed test again.
    • Check the network status page of your ISP for any known issues in your area. Planned work and hardware failures by both the NBN Co and your ISP can cause outages and network degradation, which will affect your ability to connect to the internet until resolved.
    • Calling your ISP. If rebooting your modem router doesn’t help, and there are no network issues reported by your ISP, you will need to contact them for further assistance. Having taken some of the above steps first will help your ISP focus on other possible causes, and they will discuss the next steps with you. It is important to remember that your internet speed will fluctuate throughout the day, not only as a result of your own activities such as streaming Netflix, or downloading a new game, but also the activities of your neighbours. This is one reason why nbn® and ADSL plans always list an average evening speed.

If however, the results from your speed test are close to what you signed up for, the issue could well be Wi-Fi related, and caused by the number of devices using your broadband connection at the same time and/or what each user is doing online.

If you signed up for a 100 Mbps plan, the advertised speed is the total maximum theoretical speed, not the speed every device can enjoy. When more than one device is connected at the same time, the top speed available on your plan is split between all devices, and not always evenly. It is not uncommon to find normal browsing and sending receiving of email being prioritised above any video streaming – including YouTube – and online gaming. Alternatively, you could be using a channel that is affected by outside interference from other electronic devices, and your ISP will be able to assist you with switching to a different channel to see if that doesn’t improve service. And if you only have problems with speed in certain rooms, this would suggest the Wi-Fi access point is too far away, or there are too many solid objects blocking the signal, in which case adding a mesh system or Wi-Fi extender could solve the problem.

There is plenty of support available to you for any problems you encounter using your home internet service, whether you’re still on ADSL or enjoying nbn® technology. But having a clearer idea of how broadband and Wi-Fi differ can help you diagnose and rectify some problems without involving your ISP, ensuring you get back to uninterrupted browsing and binge watching with ease.