To understand the differences between LTE and WiFi, we will quickly go over how each works.
What Is WiFi?
WiFi is a wireless network frequency that carries information between physical internet devices (routers, switches or repeaters) and end-use devices (computers, smart devices or IoT components) over radio frequency (RF) transmissions.
An internet signal, provided by an internet service provider (ISP), enters a premises through a hardwire connection and decoded via a modem and is then transmitted from the modem to a router or controller and converted to a wireless signal. Wireless signal is transmitted to other devices, including repeaters or wireless access points. These pieces of network hardware also connect users using their own devices (computers, mobile devices, etc.) and routes that traffic through the network and to the Internet.
WiFi networks are a form of local area network in which computers can connect to the wireless network. This network is built with a few critical technologies, including these examples from a very simplified network description:
- Modems: Modems are the hardware that translates signals from internet service providers (ISPs) into meaningful data for use in a location. As signals come in over copper or fiber optic cables, they do so as physical electrical pulses that are then translated into digital data for use by devices.
- Routers or Controllers: A modem handles linking internet traffic. A router/controller creates an internal network of devices, divided by internal IP addresses, and routes incoming data to those devices. Routers/controllers handle complex network management functions like dynamic routing, firewall protection, and network authentication.
- Wireless Access Points: Access points serve as the primary contact devices for users. At wireless access points, devices like computers, laptops, WiFi-enabled tablets and phones can send and receive network traffic and connect to other devices on that network and the wider internet.
- Network Cabling: Routers and other devices can connect to a modem or gateway through physical cabling. These cables, often referred to as “low-voltage cabling,” are solid and reliable so that a device like a router maintains a connection to the incoming internet while broadcasting WiFi signals.
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The latest version of WiFi technology, dubbed WiFi 6 (or WiFi 6e for the expanded version) by the WiFi Alliance, is actually the marketing name of the newest wireless broadcasting standard released by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, called IEEE 802.11ax. This latest standard provides higher throughput and lower latency and targets large wireless LANs in public areas, offices, and apartment complexes.
WiFi 6 is expected to support up to four times the number of devices its predecessor could, as well as an increase in theoretical bandwidth of up to 9.6 Gbps. Additionally, WiFi 6e will support device connections on the 6 GHz frequency band, expanding internet coverage for compatible devices.
What Is LTE, 4G, and 5G?
LTE is a form of mobile wireless connection that uses an internet-like protocol to transmit data to mobile devices. Cellular towers broadcast signals at different frequencies and logically partitioned into “cells” that help manage connections and interference for hundreds of devices. These towers then support several different channels of data transmission for these devices, including data streaming, digital voice and others. Likewise, speciality hardware and authentication approaches (notably, SIM cards) support the connection of a wide range of mobile devices scattered over a broad physical area.
Generally speaking, the breakdown of the latest mobile network generations is as follows:
- Long-Term Evolution (LTE): The third generation of cellular communication (3G) was the first to make processes that are common today, like streaming video and surfing the internet. The move from 3G to the fourth generation (4G) promised even more robust capabilities, including online gaming and streaming HD video, but called for a significant change in the infrastructure used to connect devices and carry signals. As a workaround, providers created an interim standard, LTE, that was faster and more efficient than 3G and could bridge the gap between 3G and subsequent innovations.
- 4G: The fourth generation of mobile communication focused on lower latency and higher bandwidth and saw the expanded use of mobile gaming, streaming video, video and voice calls, and IoT functionality.
- 5G: The fifth generation of mobile networks, 5G boasts bandwidth that can meet or exceed traditional WiFi internet speeds—which means it has the capacity to stream high-definition media, online games, and more. 5G is undergoing a global rollout in select areas as providers implement the necessary infrastructural upgrades.
LTE is, therefore, a wireless communication standard for mobile devices that serves as a mechanism to transition users to the newer 4G standard. Unfortunately, many cellular providers muddy the waters by referring to LTE as 4G LTE, suggesting that it improves the 4G standard. The truth is that LTE, or 4G LTE, is not true 4G and doesn’t support the same level of functionality.
What are the differences between WiFi and LTE?
There are several critical differences between WiFi and LTE mobile connections. These differences are rooted in the kind of networks that users connect to, what devices they connect with, and the applications used on both.
Some of the primary differences between WiFi and LTE are as follows:
- Device Connections: Not every device can connect to any network. Mobile phones are the most common way to connect to an LTE network. However, tablets and laptops with the right internal hardware (namely, an LTE modem and SIM card) can also connect directly to 4G LTE networks.
On the other hand, WiFi is quite commonplace in modern technology, and almost every device, from phones, tablets, and laptops, can connect to WiFi networks. WiFi connections typically require less power than LTE ones, even if they are sometimes more “noisy” and prone to interference.
Note that connecting to WiFi will often require authorization to access, whereas LTE access will require a mobile data plan with a provider.
- Security: WiFi can provide excellent security, particularly with enterprise-grade security and identity and access management capabilities. However, if a network is breached, then any traffic on that network is compromised. Furthermore, public WiFi networks are often inherently insecure and troublesome for a variety of reasons, including fake networks and traffic snooping.
On the other hand, LTE includes mechanisms for encryption and authentication built in, often using token-based (SIM card) authorization. Because of this, LTE can offer a better way to distribute decentralized network access that includes critical security measures.
- Bandwidth: The comparison of speed between these two technologies is uneven due to technological innovation. The previous WiFi (WiFi 5 or 802.11ac) technology can support connections up to 1 Gbps, depending on the hardware. LTE is comparable here, at 1 Gbps for some users. However, as WiFi 6 (802.11ax) enters the market, WiFi speeds will reach 10 Gbps. LTE simply cannot match that bandwidth, and doing so on a mobile device will require 5G connectivity.
- Longevity: LTE is quite standard now and gained significant market presence due to its ability to bridge the gap between 3G and 4G. Even with LTE, however, the discontinuation of 3G has had a significant impact on some wireless infrastructures relying on cellular signals. On the other hand , WiFi is an evolving technology that will continue to improve security, speed, and range. WiFi is and will always be backwards compatible within a particular band, so anything that's 2.4GHz or 5GHz should work with future standards.
- Stability: For office buildings and other locations where devices stay in relatively close proximity, WiFi offers more stable and reliable connections. LTE can support more distributed work in areas where WiFi isn’t feasible, but users will still have to deal with issues like cellular reception where building materials block cellular signals and require repeaters.
If you’re wondering what are the best options for getting your business connected, please don’t hesitate to reach out — we’d love to hear from you and answer any questions.
At Meter, we are the single point of contact for everything related to your internet and WiFi. Our full-stack approach so that any company can seamlessly run on a reliable and modern network. We design and build our own networking hardware — controllers, switches, and wireless access points. We manage the entire installation of a network (internet service provider procurement and management, network design, low-voltage cabling, IT server room build out). And once the network is up and running, our software allows us to efficiently manage the network.
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