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What's the difference between internet and Ethernet?

Internet and Ethernet are two technologies that sound similar and provide connectivity, but the methods of providing connectivity differ significantly.

Internet and Ethernet both enable connectivity between users and devices, but what are the differences between the two?

The internet connects users from all over the world in a single massive network. Devices on the internet can talk to one another using the global infrastructure. Ethernet connects devices in a local area network (LAN), which is a much smaller collection of interconnected devices. Devices can use Ethernet to connect within their LAN and also to the internet.

What is the internet?

The internet is a global interconnected network comprising thousands of networks. It wasn't always this expansive, though. When the internet's predecessor, ARPANET, was created in the 1960s, only computers on the same network could communicate with each other through packet switching.

It wasn't until the early 1980s that a team of engineers created a way for computers located on different networks to communicate with each other via Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). TCP/IP was the catalyst that prompted the internet to grow into the resource it has become. Without TCP/IP and other protocols that emerged, devices located across separate networks wouldn't be able to communicate with each other.

Since its inception, the internet has taken the world by storm. Tens of thousands of smaller networks operated and managed by organizations exist within the internet. Users connect to the internet using various hardware appliances that communicate through protocols.

Billions of devices across the world use the internet. An estimated 60% of the world's population has access to the internet as of 2021, per Statista. The World Wide Web is the most used service of the internet. The web is another term used interchangeably with the internet, but the two aren't the same. The web is only one service of the overall internet infrastructure and is generally used as a collection of information and resources. Other services include email and File Transfer Protocol (FTP).

Internet use cases

Use cases for the internet include the following:

  • sending and receiving emails and instant messages;
  • transferring files between devices;
  • browsing the web; and
  • providing infrastructure support for IoT.
Comparison chart of differences between internet vs. Ethernet
This chart shows the differences between internet and Ethernet.

What is Ethernet?

Ethernet is a technology that connects devices together in a LAN. A physical Ethernet cable connects the devices and facilitates communication between them. Data travels between the wires, and protocols enable the devices to talk to each other.

Created in the mid-1970s by researchers who wanted to link multiple computers together in a single LAN, Ethernet developed around the same time as the internet. LANs had been in use since the 1960s, but Ethernet was the first technology to successfully link computers together in a LAN.

In 1983, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) approved the first official Ethernet standard -- only 10 Mbps at the time. Current Ethernet capability can now support up to 10 Gbps, a rate 1,000 times faster than the original Ethernet standard.

Because Ethernet cables are physically connected to hardware devices, there is less risk and more reliability as opposed to a wireless Wi-Fi connection. Internet speeds are also much faster with Ethernet. However, range of connectivity is limited. Environments that require secure, high-speed internet access -- such as universities, company offices and hospitals -- typically use Ethernet. 

Ethernet use cases

Use cases for Ethernet include the following:

  • connecting devices together in a LAN;
  • providing internet access for devices;
  • ensuring reliable, fast and secure connectivity; and
  • Power over Ethernet (PoE) support for IoT devices.

How to access the internet

Ultimately, users need the internet to access the web, email and other internet services. But how can users access the internet?

An appliance called a modem enables internet connectivity from ISPs, such as AT&T and Verizon. A router enables devices on a network to use that internet connection simultaneously. Some appliances combine both modem and router functionality.

Devices can connect to a router via wired or wireless connections. For example, Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity, such as 3G and 4G, are common wireless ways to connect devices to the internet. Wired methods include Ethernet cables and fiber optics. Other connectivity methods are satellite, dial-up and Digital Subscriber Line.

As wireless devices have become more commonplace, Wi-Fi and 4G have grown as popular connectivity methods. But there are still some benefits to using Ethernet over Wi-Fi, as it provides reliable, high-speed connectivity for gaming, home offices and other latency-sensitive environments.

Internet of Things

IoT describes the system of billions of devices connected to the internet. These devices, or things, have the capability to transfer and share data over the internet. Colloquially dubbed as smart devices, these devices can autonomously communicate with each other without human involvement.

IoT has simplified processes for both consumers and businesses. Users who install smart objects in their homes can control them with their smartphones, effectively turning their home into a smart home. Businesses can also automate processes and reduce human labor with IoT devices.

Power over Ethernet

PoE is an Ethernet technology that adds electrical power to network cables. Instead of devices needing two cables for network and power, they need only a single network cable with electrical wiring. PoE is a safer alternative to traditional wiring because having fewer cables reduces the amount of voltage needed to power a device.

Although traditional Ethernet cables are specifically for wired devices, network teams can deploy PoE to power wireless IoT devices. PoE for IoT is preferable for network teams looking to save costs and simplify the configuration process. Additionally, PoE delivers the same speed, security and reliability found in traditional Ethernet cables. 

devices powered by Power over Ethernet
Some of the many devices that can be powered by PoE.

Differences between internet vs. Ethernet

Internet and Ethernet differ considerably. Here are some of the main distinctions between the two:

  • size
  • connectivity
  • reliability
  • security
  • use cases
This was last published in October 2021

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