Differentiating the Internet from Wi-Fi
Most of us access the internet many times each day — from our laptops, our smartphones, or even our smart TVs. More often than not, we're using a wireless network for our connection. Some people use the terms "internet" and "Wi-Fi" interchangeably, but they are different elements of the technology ecosystem that keeps us connected.
The Internet Is a Highway
The internet has been called the Information Superhighway and with good reason. Just like a road that connects two cities and moves people and goods, the internet is a digital maze of routes that connects thousands of computer networks so they can exchange bits of information. Using an agreed-upon language (called the Internet Protocol), these interconnected devices use the internet's digital "roads" to exchange data that is then translated into human-consumable form at the other end. It's what allows you to send an email, picture, or video to someone who's across the street or across the country.
This vast network of digital routes allows computers to talk to each other from anywhere in the world as long as they're connected to it. There are several ways to connect to the internet (i.e. to merge onto to this "superhighway").
To connect to your Internet Service Provider's network from your home, you're given access to a physical line. If this line is a fiber-optic cable, it may be connected to a modem, to a device known as a GigaCenter or GigaHub, or to your own router. If your ISP has a copper or coax network, the line would be connected to a modem.
There are two ways to connect a computer to a modem. The first method involves physically plugging the computer into the port on the back of the modem using an Ethernet cable. The second method, which is much more common today, uses a wireless connection made possible by a device called a Wi-Fi router. The Wi-Fi router can be physically plugged into the modem with a cable or combined with the modem into a single piece of equipment. It uses radio technology to broadcast a unique name (also known as a service set identifier, or SSID), which you or your ISP chooses when the router is first set up.
Wi-Fi Is an Access Ramp
The introduction of the Wi-Fi standard revolutionized the way people accessed the internet. Wi-Fi refers to a wireless network that allows computers, smartphones, or other devices within a particular area to connect to the internet (and each other) without being physically connected by a cable.
Because information is transferred using wireless transmitters and radio signals, physical proximity to the Wi-Fi router is necessary for a good connection. But once connected, people can move around freely with their devices without losing their connection to the internet.
Understanding the Challenges of Wi-Fi
By removing the need for a physical connection to access the internet, Wi-Fi lets people take the internet with them almost everywhere they go. This leap in technology means more than just being able to work from your local coffee shop. Businesses use Wi-Fi-enabled handheld devices to streamline processes and speed up customer service.
Yet, as convenient as Wi-Fi is, it doesn't automatically solve your networking problems. For example, having a strong Wi-Fi connection doesn't necessarily mean you have a good internet connection — or that you're connected to the internet at all. It just means that your device can communicate with the Wi-Fi router.
The other concern is security. Wi-Fi routers are designed to allow all Wi-Fi-enabled devices that are "in range" to connect, which is not always desirable, especially if someone wants to use your Wi-Fi network to piggy-back on your internet service. For this reason, you should make sure your home Wi-Fi network is password-protected so that only authorized users can connect to it. Furthermore, when you access someone else's Wi-Fi network, the owner of that network can potentially see all the information you're sending and receiving, including user names and passwords.
A Powerful Combination
As long as you understand the difference between the internet and Wi-Fi, and take steps to protect yourself from online threats, you can connect from virtually anywhere without worry.
FAST FACT: As an acronym, Wi-Fi doesn't stand for anything. Interbrand coined the term as a play on the term "Hi-Fi" or "High Fidelity."
How to Maintain Security When Using Public Wi-Fi
Free public Wi-Fi is readily available in most communities, but it's not necessarily as secure as your own Wi-Fi network. Waiting like a mugger in a dark corner may be a hacker, intercepting such information as your credit card numbers. Use these tips to make sure your information stays safe if you're using public Wi-Fi:
Treat all Wi-Fi links with suspicion. Don't just assume the Wi-Fi link is legitimate. It could be a bogus link set up by a hacker.
Try to verify it's a legitimate wireless connection. Some bogus links will have a connection name that's deliberately similar to the coffee shop or other venue that's offering free Wi-Fi. Ask an employee about the legitimate Wi-Fi access point's name and IP address.
Adjust your default setting. Set it to prompt you to manually select a Wi-Fi network rather than have one automatically chosen for you.
Avoid sensitive transactions. When using public Wi-Fi, don't conduct financial/banking transactions or do online shopping.
Protect your devices. Make sure you always have the current versions of your operating system, firewalls, Web browser, and antivirus and antispyware software.
Another recommendation is to use Wi-Fi that is password protected and more secure than an open network. If you have a choice between secure and nonsecure, always choose the secure Wi-Fi network, even if you have to pay for it.