Wireless internet providers are becoming the keystone of online activity. In fact, we aren't even spending as much time on our computers as we are on our smartphones, tablets, and other portable forms of connection. According to data from comScore, a marketing research firm which studies consumer digital behavior, mobile access now makes up 65% of the time Americans spend online. Even when at home, most people are utilizing wireless internet via a router to use their computers and other devices.
What all of this means to you is that understanding the various technologies involved in accessing mobile internet is a virtual imperative in today's world. There are different types of Wi-Fi service available, and the technology is advancing every day. In this guide I'll give you an overview of the industry, as well as a rundown of Wi-Fi service providers and what kinds of wireless internet plans they offer.
Webopedia defines Wi-Fi as:
...a popular wireless networking technology that uses radio waves to provide wireless high-speed internet and network connections.
In other words, it's simply technology that allows you to use your devices - smartphones, computers, tablets, Smart TVs, etc. - without having to be connected via wires.
What Does Wi-Fi Stand For?
The question of what Wi-Fi stands for has been the subject of internet mythology since its inception in 1999. You've probably heard that the term is short for Wireless Fidelity, however that is actually a misnomer which has even been perpetuated by high-authority sites over the years. To this day, Techopedia includes the words "wireless fidelity" in its explanation of Wi-Fi internet.
So, how did this misunderstanding get started? The term "Wi-Fi" is actually owned/trademarked by the Wi-Fi Alliance, a non-profit which promotes wireless technologies that meet specific interoperational standards. Back when this organization began, it was known as WECA - Wireless Ethernet Compatibility Alliance. At first, shortly after the term Wi-Fi was chosen as the representative of the group's mission, someone added the tagline "The Standard for Wireless Fidelity". It was merely a clumsy attempt to help consumers make sense of this strange new technology.
The problem was that Wireless Fidelity does not exist. It isn't a thing. The tagline was quickly abandoned by the alliance, but unfortunately, as the internets often do, cyberspace clung onto it for dear life and just didn't seem to want to let go. Thus, this very long way of explaining that Wi-Fi doesn't stand for anything, except itself.
What Does Wi-Fi Mean?
Now that we know that Wi-Fi internet is just that, let's take a look at what it actually means. Wireless internet services make use of RF (radio frequency) technology. This operating method allows for an electromagnetic field to conduct the signal coming from the router and carry it to the wireless devices. This is accomplished using standards set forth by the Wi-Fi Alliance, which designates compatible devices as "wireless local area network (WLAN) products that are based on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' (IEEE) 802.11 standards." That's the standard you see on the box when you buy a router - it may say 802.11a, 802.11b, etc.
Along with the 802.11x designation on any wireless-enabled equipment, you should also look for "Wi-Fi Certified". Any product marked Wi-Fi Certified will work with any other product with that certification.
The router is known as the AP (access point). In RF technology terms, the "receiver" in the case of wireless internet could be anything from a smartphone to a gaming console. The reason for the standards established by the Wi-Fi Alliance is to make it easier to ensure that all of the hardware will work together. Along with the 802.11x designation on any wireless-enabled equipment, you should also look for "Wi-Fi Certified". Any product marked Wi-Fi Certified will work with any other product with that certification. This is why so many enabled devices available today are what's known as plug-and-play. They are, in theory, essentially ready to connect right out of the box.
Explanation of Wi-Fi 802.11x Standards
Each incarnation of the 802.11 wireless connection standard has different implications in terms of capacity and capability. Following is a basic explanation of the common versions of this technology:
- 802.11b: This specification was created in 1999 and can handle up to 11Mbps. It is affordable, providing a cheap wireless internet solution, however it can also be subject to interference from household appliances such as microwave ovens and cordless phones because they operate on the same 2.4GHz frequency.
- 802.11a: This version was actually in development at the same time as 802.11b. It has a higher bandwidth capacity, at 54Mbps, and operates at a 5GHz frequency. It is more expensive, and more vulnerable to blockage such as walls.
- 802.11g: Created as a middle-of-the-road solution to both a and b, this specification has the 54Mbps capability yet operates at 2.4GHz. 802.11g is backwards compatible with 802.11b hardware.
- 802.11n: Also known as Wireless N, this incarnation is backwards compatible with b and g, and offers significantly better speed capacity at 300Mbps.
- 802.11ac: This is what's known as dual-band wireless technology. It operates on both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, is backwards compatible with all of the above technologies, and is rated to facilitate up to 1300Mbps.
There are additional 802.11x technologies but the above are the ones most commonly associated with consumer use, thus are the standards you'll likely see on the store shelf when shopping for a wireless router to facilitate your Wi-Fi connection.
Types of Wireless Internet Providers
The first thing that comes to mind when we think of wireless internet is the kind of Wi-Fi detailed above, which allows us to sit in a room all the way across the house from the router and still play on our smartphones and laptops. Wireless internet service has expanded significantly over the past several years, however. The technology now encompasses not only home wireless internet but also things like 4G, which allows us to access the web on our devices while away from home, and even get home internet without being wired into a phone or cable line. Below I've provided an outline of the main types of wireless internet service available to consumers on a large scale:
- Wireless Home Internet: Most high speed internet providers such as AT&T Internet supply their customers with a modem (typically for a monthly rental fee). You still need a router to broadcast the wireless internet signal throughout your home; fortunately these days the modem and router are often combined into one device.
- Mobile Wireless Hub: Virtually every cellular wireless carrier now offers a portable wireless hub that allows you to connect your devices on the go. There are also independent wireless internet providers offering this type of service. According to data collected by software company Citrix, 61% of people report working away from their office at least part of the time. This means that wireless internet options are more important than ever.
- Fixed Wi-Fi Service: Some major internet companies provide their customers with nationwide hotspots. Xfinity Wi-Fi is a good example of this type of wireless internet service - they have over 8 million access points across the country. The caveat is that you must be subscribed to their home service in order to access the hotspots.
- Wireless Home Broadband (WISP): This version of wireless internet options is still very much in its infancy, however, it shows great promise. WISP stands for Wireless Internet Service Provider. Through a wireless connection to the ISP via an antenna mounted on your home, you can get speeds up to 100Mbps without having to be wired into phone lines or cable infrastructure.
Through a wireless connection to the ISP via an antenna mounted on your home, you can get speeds up to 100Mbps without having to be wired in to phone lines or cable infrastructure.
These are the primary forms of wireless internet service in use today. Each has its own benefits and limitations along with applications for which each is most suitable. Next, I'll address the pros and cons of each type of wireless service.
- Wireless home internet - this type of connection is a must-have today, due to the many different types of devices you use every day in your home. Tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices cannot be hooked up to a wired connection, thus making wireless internet for the home a foregone conclusion. Using wireless for a desktop or laptop computer can, however, cause your connection speed to be compromised. With the blazing speeds available these days, including gigabit service via fiber optic internet providers, the slowdowns aren't significant enough to affect most typical household use.
- Mobile wireless hub - while convenient, you need to watch your costs when using this kind of wireless internet service. Typically you buy the device, and then purchase either a fixed monthly data plan or buy data by the gigabyte. If you're not cautious, usage can add up quickly. Still, this is a great solution for short periods of time when you must stay connected outside the home or office. Mobile wireless internet hubs typically operate on the 4G network, which offers up to 10Mbps download speed.
- Fixed Wi-Fi service - The advantage of having access to your home internet provider's hotspots is that you get mobile broadband, as opposed to the 4G wireless internet options available through mobile hubs. On the plus side, however, you get mobile access for free as long as you are subscribed to the company's home services.
- WISP - this type of home wireless internet connection is the newest entry among broadband internet providers, so the jury is still out for the most part. The speed and affordability are solid, however, there can be issues with outages and other problems like trees and buildings blocking the signal.
Now that you know what wireless internet options are out there, we'll look at the top wireless internet providers and what they offer.
Wireless Internet Providers
Wireless Internet Providers: Portable Hotspots
AT&T Wi-Fi: The communications giant offers cellular service, wireless home internet, and mobile hotspot technology. If you're after a mobile wireless internet connection, they have several options for devices, including those which can handle up to 15 connected devices. The downside is that AT&T Wi-Fi data is expensive. Access to your mobile hotspot will run you as much as $25 for 2 GB. You also have the option of hooking your hub up to a shared data plan.
Verizon Wi-Fi: Verizon Internet offers wireless internet hotpots for anywhere between free and $200, depending upon whether you sign a 2-year contract or go with a prepaid plan. You then purchase a data plan separately to use with your device.
Karma Go: This company is a good example of independent wireless internet providers. You simply buy the hub for $150 and then either choose a plan, which runs between $40 and $150 depending upon the amount of data you choose or buy your data one gig at a time for $15 each.
Wireless Internet Providers - WISP
Wireless broadband for your home is a relatively new concept. While there have been rural internet options utilizing WISP for nearly two decades now, rollout on a wider scale has only been in motion for a few years now.
Vivint Internet: Vivint is unique among wireless internet providers in that the company didn't start out in that particular industry niche. Vivint was an established security and Smart Home company that responded to overwhelming customer demand for wireless internet service. They now have 100Mbps service available in several markets, with more planned. For $60 per month you get fiber optic speed with no data caps and no overage charges. There have been some bumps along the way, however, according to Ars Technica. Hopefully by the time service is available nationwide the kinks will be ironed out.
Zing!: This WISP is a subsidiary of HughesNet, and is available almost everywhere in the U.S. They offer internet plans and prices between 5Mbps and 15Mbps for $50 to $130 per month. The truly unique thing about this WISP is that you can take your connection anywhere, as long as there's an electrical outlet.
As the demand for mobile access continues to grow the availability of wireless internet providers will grow with it. Keep an eye on this segment of the internet service industry, as it will almost certainly provide more affordability and flexibility as technology advances.
Wireless Internet Providers Recap
The wireless internet providers that I've touched on in this guide are just a sampling of the Wi-Fi service options available throughout the nation. Be sure to use our zip code checker tool to quickly and easily find out what options are available in your location. You can find not only wireless service providers with this tool, but also cable, internet, and phone providers as well.