Wi-Fi, 3G, 4G, Oh My! What does it all mean?

By Sandra Clitter  

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a black phone that sat in the hallway. It went ‘ring-ring’ when someone wanted to speak with you. You dialed when you wanted to speak with someone else, and the black phone went ‘ring-ring’ on their end. Alas, that time has come and gone. Today, we have a multitude of ways to connect to or hear from the outside world. Maybe you still have a ‘ring-ring’ phone, but I’d venture to day you don’t ‘dial’ any more…you punch buttons. Fewer and fewer people even have ‘land lines’ (those phones that plug into a phone jack somewhere in the house). Cell phones are becoming the norm.

So far, I’m not confused. So far, I understand that we’ve migrated from ‘ring-ring’ phones to phones which aren’t connected to the wall in one location (cell phones). I’m good with a phone which allows people to reach me, no matter where I am. I didn’t understand how sound traveled down the wires into my ‘ring-ring’ phone…I certainly don’t understand how the sound bounces off of a satellite somewhere and ‘appears’ in my cell phone. Honestly though, I don’t really care. I take how certain things work on faith (you can add to that list electricity and television).

Here’s where things start getting hairy. First, I have my cell phone which works wherever/whenever. Then, my computer decides that it doesn’t want to be tethered to my desk, so it goes wireless. My cell phone becomes ‘more than a phone’ and actually allows me to get e-mail and surf the web from wherever I find myself. Then, I get a Kindle/Nook and it needs to ‘talk’ to the internet as I roam about.

Each time I go to purchase a new device, I have to learn a new lesson in alphabet soup! At the heart of it all is the confusion about whether I need a separate service plan to connect, or if I can connect using what I already have, or if it is a different type of connection than I currently have access to. Whew! Makes me not want to expand my horizons for fear of the ensuing headache (not to mention additional charges).

So, thanks to Rick Broida at PC World, I got a FABULOUS explanation of the difference between 3G and Wi-Fi – both internet access (and, oh yeah, 4G is just like 3G, but faster) in the article aptly titled “What’s the difference between 3G and WiFi“.

Both WiFi and 3G (or 4G) allow you to connect to the internet. These are NOT your traditional cell service (the ability to make calls on your cell).

If you have wireless internet in your house/business, then you have WiFi. You probably have a box somewhere (called a wireless modem or wireless router) which has a little antenna and allows you to access the internet without wires from anywhere in a building.

3G or 4G are, as Rick states, “Internet everywhere”. 3G and 4G use the same cell towers that your phone uses, but access the internet instead of the calling system.

So…if you are buying a new device or gizmo during this holiday season, make sure that you understand the following:

1. Does it access the internet?
2. If it does access the internet, does it do it wirelessly? (most of the time the answer is ‘yes’ these days)
3. If it accesses the internet wirelessly, is it WiFi or 3G/4G connectivity (or both)?
4. If it can access the internet with WiFi, do you need the password for the particular WiFi location(s) where the device is located? (If the answer is ‘no’ to this question, then there are no additional charges even if you’re not around a wireless internet service that you pay for).
5. If it uses 3G/4G, do you need to pay for additional service?

The reason for the last two questions is that SOME devices, like my particular Kindle, do NOT require you to purchase additional wireless services…they just piggyback off of existing WiFi or 3G/4G with NO ADDITIONAL CHARGE. Like my old ‘ring-ring’ phone, I have no idea how/why that works, but it does and I’m thrilled about it because I don’t want to pay any more for additional internet services…I pay too much as it is!

That is NOT the case for iPads, etc. Those actually need you to create an internet connection – either via WiFi (free if its available free at your location, but you need a signon/password to access if the wireless is not available publicly) or additional carrier charges if you choose 3G/4G.

So, before you get all excited about that new ‘toy’ under the tree (iPad, Kindle, Nook, etc.), make sure that you understand which type of connectivity the device needs. Figure out where the device will be used (if you never take it out of your house and your house has WiFi, and the device has WiFi, then all is well, but if you take the device elsewhere, you may be subject to additional internet connection charges/plans). Then, look at the additional costs (if any) of purchasing the internet connectivity. That will help you make the best decision on that ‘perfect gift’!


  1. Tammy Mowry
    Posted May 20, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink | Reply

    So basically it’s the same thing. Thank you so much.


    • Posted May 20, 2013 at 9:52 am | Permalink | Reply

      They just LOVE to throw all kinds of jargon out to confuse us mere ‘mortals’! :-). Good luck selecting your new phone.


  2. Posted May 20, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink | Reply

    Hi, there!

    “Mobile Web” is available on any “smarthphone” as long as there is internet access. In other words, “Mobile Web” just means accessing the internet from a mobile device. Wikipedia has its definition here. The method you use to get to the web (i.e. the connection itself) will be WiFi or 3G or 4G. So, once you have a connection to the web on your smartphone, then you are using the ‘mobile web’. The actual connection itself is the 3G or 4G part.

    Hope that helps.


  3. Posted December 18, 2012 at 4:19 am | Permalink | Reply

    I read this piece of writing completely on the topic of the
    comparison of most up-to-date and earlier technologies, it’s amazing article.

  4. Posted November 5, 2012 at 12:36 am | Permalink | Reply

    Fantastic blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little
    lost on everything. Would you suggest starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option?

    There are so many options out there that I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any ideas? Appreciate it!

  5. Posted December 14, 2011 at 10:41 am | Permalink | Reply

    Once upon a time when “Charlie” was little “Chuckie” and he lived in a square-box house that looked like every other house on the block (“Oh, we’re the one with the GREEN shutters”), down near the old elementary school which has long been shuttered, his next-door neighbor had a phone unlike others on the block.

    You could pick up the Nolan Family phone, dial THEIR number, hang up, and the phone would ring! Pretty cool.

    It would ALSO ring at the home of their “party line.” And depending on how the ring sounded, each of the party-line members would know if they should pick up.

    But even BEFORE that, Little Chuckie remembers picking up a phone and saying to the nice woman at the other end, “Kingswood 3 – 8620 please” and then she’d call Chuckie’s house and connect him with his Mom.

    OK… so it was NOT exactly like Timmy’s mom making a call on that old crank phone in “Lassie,” but not that far off either!

    We’ve come a long way. And the speed at which we keep moving is increasing.

    And in my world (where we help professionals build their marketing so that they can dominate their niche and magnetically draw clients to them), the customer, client, or patient is a moving target who isn’t

    = in front of a TV all day long to get a commercial (and so many people now watch TV from their DVR that they fast forward past anything remotely like a commercial), nor
    = next to a radio where the commercials all blend together between the news reports or music, nor
    = at a desk all day long to receive an email, nor
    = reading a newspaper with a morning cup of coffee (IF reading a newspaper it might be an electronic version where skipping the ads is even easier).

    And Yellow Pages are similar to nursing homes: they’re very expensive and only people 75 and above are using them.

    So… as WE change, we have to realize that our customers, clients, and patients are changing – and we have to meet them where THEY are if we’re going to be successful.

    Charlie Seymour Jr

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Charlie, you made me LOL!!! Honestly. I LOVE the nursing home comment. Its getting truer and truer every day, isn’t it?

      • Terrence Murray
        Posted July 14, 2015 at 4:52 am | Permalink | Reply

        I hate to admit it but this article has helped me a lot. My sisters daughter volunteered me to set up my mothers WI-FI. I love the way this article starts.

        Thanks so much,

        • Posted July 19, 2015 at 1:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

          Don’t be ashamed to admit it…you put a smile on my face today…any time that you can do that, you should consider your day a good one! Good luck setting up your mother’s WiFi…I wish the Technical Gods to be smiling down on you when you did in :-).

  6. Posted December 14, 2011 at 8:41 am | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for writing such a clear article on this subject. I was helping a friend purchase a Kindle Fire (now I want one!) for a friend and, in the process, learned about Wifi and 4g, but was glad to read your synopsis of it. You’re such a good thinker and writer! Next year I’m hoping to upgrade my phone. I’m not looking forward to the additional charges so I will be sure to follow your advice and make sure I understand it all!

    • Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks, Becky…honestly, I could not have articulated it as well without the article in PC World, so thank that author, too! Good luck with your phone upgrade…I know you’re a Mac user, so the iPhone should be really up your alley.

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