Problem solve Get help with specific problems with your technologies, process and projects.

Wi-Fi vs. 3G

Can you help me distinguish between Wi-Fi and the other wireless technologies such as 3G? How are they different? Are they competing technologies?
Wi-Fi is a wireless local area network (LAN) technology, suitable for creating workgroups of stations that connect to an access point -- the access point provides entry into an adjacent wired network. Think of Wi-Fi as the wireless equivalent of Ethernet.

3G technologies like GPRS and CDMA2000 are wireless wide area network (WAN) technologies, suitable for connecting mobile devices to carrier base stations -- the base station provides entry into the carrier's wireless network, and from there into the Internet or public switched telephone network. Think of 3G as the wireless equivalent of ISDN or DSL.

There are many underlying technical reasons why these two technologies are suitable for different applications, but here are a few key differences:


  • Wi-Fi reaches only 300+ feet from the station to the access point, and is most often used indoors. 3G connects stations that are within miles of a base station (cellular tower), used most often outdoors.
  • Wi-Fi bandwidth ranges from 11 Mbps to 54 Mbps, depending upon the actual standard. 3G services deliver about 40-70 Kbps today, even though they promise to deliver better than 1 Mbps in the future.
  • Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum, which means that anyone (you or I) can install a wireless LAN. 3G uses licensed spectrum, which means that only public carriers that purchase the spectrum can install a wireless WAN and offer commercial service to the public.
Wi-Fi and 3G are really complementary technologies. For example, you use Ethernet in your LAN, and DSL to connect your LAN to the Internet. In the same way, you use Wi-Fi in your office, and 3G outside the office.

People begin to think of these technologies as competing when they consider running the same application over both. For example, voice over Wi-Fi could be a less expensive alternative to voice over GPRS, but only when the mobile device is close enough to a Wi-Fi access point. Carriers are a bit troubled by that possibility because they'd lose revenue. That is, unless carriers get into the business of providing Wi-Fi public access -- which companies like Verizon and SprintPCS are starting to do right now!



Dig Deeper on Mobile networking

Have a question for an expert?

Please add a title for your question

Get answers from a TechTarget expert on whatever's puzzling you.

You will be able to add details on the next page.

Start the conversation

Send me notifications when other members comment.

Please create a username to comment.