Wireless Internet access generally is one of two types--Wi-Fi or cellular, also known as 3G. Wi-Fi and 3G Internet access generally are marketed to different types of customers. Understanding how these two types of Internet services differ can help you choose the one that best fits your needs.
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The speed of a Wi-Fi connection varies depending on the type of Internet connection that the Wi-Fi access point is connected to. Download speeds can be as low as 1 megabit per second (mbps) or as high as 5 to 8 mbps or more. With 3G Internet service, download speeds tend to average slightly more than 1 mbps.
The average upload speed on a 3G connection is approximately 225 kbps, depending on signal strength and network congestion. Typically, a Wi-Fi connection will have upload speeds ranging from approximately 300 to 600 kbps. As with download speeds, the upload speed of a Wi-Fi connection depends on the type of Internet connection used by the Wi-Fi provider.
In networking, "latency" measures the amount of time that it takes for information to get from one point to another--the amount of time that it takes for a website to begin loading after you hit the "Go" button, for example. With a strong signal from the access point, the latency of a Wi-Fi connection should be almost as low as if your computer were directly connected to the cable or DSL modem. The latency of a 3G connection tends to average slightly under 500 milliseconds, or close to one-half second. In practice, they may not make a great deal of difference in the perceived speed of browsing the web. However, playing online action games may be difficult.
Range and Signal
The greatest benefit of 3G Internet service is the fact that it can be received nearly anywhere. As long as you are in a location where a mobile phone signal can be received, you will be able to get online. However, the speed drops as you leave metropolitan areas. Although many networks have excellent 3G coverage, you can expect significantly slower speeds if you are not in or near a city. With Wi-Fi, you will only be able to receive services if you are within approximately 200 feet of an access point. Outside of the immediate vicinity of the access point, your speed may drop, but it is more likely that you will simply lose service.
Most Wi-Fi connections do not place a limit on the amount of data that can be downloaded. If there are limits, they are usually quite generous. Because 3G networks must share bandwidth with mobile phone traffic, however, phone providers must limit the amount of data that customers can download so that the quality of their phone service does not suffer. For this reason, 3G connections are often limited. A typical download limit will be approximately 5 gigabytes monthly. After reaching your limit on a 3G connection, your speed will not decrease. However, extra charges will be added to your bill, according the rate specified on your contract.
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