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What's the difference between Wi-Fi and the internet?

The internet connects users to the outside world. Wi-Fi connects devices within a business, which then connect to other network devices and out to the internet.

Technical specifics are vital when talking about network support. The right information can speed up resolution while generalities or assumptions can impede the help desk and engineering teams when trouble hits. One of the most glaring examples of this is distinguishing -- or failing to distinguish -- between Wi-Fi and the internet.

It may sound profoundly basic, but anyone who operates a wireless LAN environment can share countless cases where end users consider Wi-Fi and the internet synonymous. But they are not.

What is Wi-Fi?

Homes and businesses have enjoyed the benefits of Wi-Fi for over two decades. But what the technology is and isn't frequently gets lost in discussion:

  • Wi-Fi is a term of convenience. Just like Ethernet is a less onerous way to refer to the IEEE 802.3 family of wired LAN standards, Wi-Fi is a catch-all term for the IEEE 802.11 family of wireless networking standards. The most current version is 802.11ax, also known as Wi-Fi 6.
  • Wi-Fi is just the edge of the network. If you work back from the wireless client device, like a laptop or smartphone, you'll see Wi-Fi can be considered the edge of the network. The client device connects via Wi-Fi to a wireless access point (AP), which in turn connects to one or more Ethernet switches, which connects to one or more routers and eventually gets to the internet. At home, all these functions are still present, but all may be under the hood of a wireless router. Regardless, your client devices are connecting wirelessly to the edge of the network.
  • Wi-Fi APs bridge wireless to wired. In business Wi-Fi settings, those who don't know better might call WLAN APs any number of misnomers, such as routers, antennas, hubs and so on. However they are referred to, the basic construct of an AP is important to understand. Excluding mesh technologies more apt to be used at home, a Wi-Fi AP normally does the required translations between 802.11 wireless on the radio side to 802.3 Ethernet on the LAN side. Sometimes they have their own CPU and memory, or they may be thin and need a controller to operate, akin to a business telephone and a PBX.
  • Not all Wi-Fi devices are compatible. Many client and infrastructure devices use Wi-Fi. But depending on their age and which version of 802.11 is in use, the devices may not interoperate. For example, old 802.11b clients may not work on a new 802.11ax network depending on that network's settings. Wi-Fi may be a broad term, but situational specifics do matter.

What is the internet?

Though Wi-Fi is often a virtual conduit to the internet, the internet was around long before Wi-Fi showed up. The internet can be thought of as a network of networks all connected and accessible to the general public for the sharing of countless resources.

To get to the internet, you need to connect through a network that connects to the internet. ISPs sell a wireless router and broadband internet modem together and label the combination as Wi-Fi internet for marketing purposes. Somewhat analogous is the personal hotspot where smartphones connect via Wi-Fi radio waves. The cellular network is the connection to the internet on a different set of radio frequencies instead of using a wired ISP connection.

In the business environment, the internet, Wi-Fi and even LAN can all be considered modular in that any one part of the ecosystem can be upgraded or replaced separately from the others. Just remember that the internet is outside the organization or home, and the other network sections are inside.

Wi-Fi vs. internet comparison
Take a closer look at the difference between the internet and Wi-Fi.

Can you have Wi-Fi without the internet?

Every day, networking professionals field complaints like, "My Wi-Fi is down." But in reality, it's the internet or some application hosted out on the internet that's having issues. On occasion, the reverse happens -- the WLAN has issues when the internet is fine.

Arguably, to end users, the nuance may be irrelevant because they can't do what they want to do and they just want the problem fixed. Because Wi-Fi and the internet are used so tightly together, it's not surprising they are sometimes considered identical by those not in the networking trade.

Many business settings, however, may use several private Wi-Fi networks that have no internet connection whatsoever. Whether the use case is Wi-Fi door locks, retail barcode scanners, video systems or any application where the client device talks only to an internal server, the internet is often not needed or wanted.

By design, many large networks have more devices that can't reach the internet via Wi-Fi or LAN than those that can. Security is usually the primary driver in keeping networked devices off the internet.

Wi-Fi, internet and working from home

The distinction between Wi-Fi and the internet is important, especially as more people work from home and try to troubleshoot their network connectivity problems. With work-from-home policies now an integral part of life for large groups of people, the nature of network troubleshooting has morphed. In some ways, employees working from home have been forced to learn more about their home networks and troubleshoot issues accordingly.

Even though many people frequently use Wi-Fi and internet interchangeably, both are distinct operational areas.

For instance, when working from home and trouble hits, is it the internet or Wi-Fi?

If your internet goes out, you have lost your connection to the outside world, but your LAN and Wi-Fi are likely still healthy. You can print a document from your PC to your printer. You can stream pictures from your phone to devices like an Apple TV or Chromecast over Wi-Fi. You can save video footage from a device to a network-attached storage if it's at home.

These examples illustrate what still works if the internet connection cuts out. But anything that relies on connectivity beyond your own walls is affected.

By contrast, if you lose Wi-Fi only in some fashion, your internet may still be fine. How do you verify? Though you may have forgotten about patch cables due to Wi-Fi's popularity, plugging a patch cable between a PC and a home router -- or testing a game console that might use wired Ethernet -- is the first troubleshooting step.

If your wired devices connect to the internet despite Wi-Fi being problematic, you can properly quantify the issue and see that. Even though many people frequently use Wi-Fi and internet interchangeably, both are distinct operational areas.

Lastly, when network trouble hits and you're trying to decipher if it's related to your Wi-Fi or internet, try another easy troubleshooting test. Can you ping your router from Wi-Fi? If so, you probably have an internet issue. Verify by trying to ping (Google's DNS). Try a few times. If it doesn't work, you probably have an internet issue.

If you can't ping your router over Wi-Fi, that is an important data point when you solicit help, as it likely means Wi-Fi-specific trouble.

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