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

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 such 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.

For instance, when you're working from home and trouble hits, is it your internet or Wi-Fi? Some networking novices may be wondering: What's the difference between Wi-Fi and the internet? To some people, the internet and Wi-Fi are the same thing. But that's not accurate, and getting it right does matter.

If my internet goes out, I have lost my connection to the outside world, but my LAN and Wi-Fi are likely still healthy. I can print a document from my PC to my printer. I can stream pictures from my phone to devices like an Apple TV or Chromecast over Wi-Fi. I can save video footage from a device to my network-attached storage, if it is at home. These few examples illustrate what still works if the internet connection cuts out, but anything that relies on connectivity beyond my own walls is affected.

By contrast, if I lose Wi-Fi only in some fashion, my internet may still be fine. How do you verify? Though some of us may have forgotten what patch cables are 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.

Wi-Fi vs. internet

If your wired devices connect to the internet despite Wi-Fi being problematic, you can properly quantify the issue and see that, even though we frequently use Wi-Fi and internet interchangeably, they 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, here's another easy troubleshooting test to try: 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. Still no go? 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.

This was last published in June 2020

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