What’s the real world difference between 3G and Wi-Fi?

Courtesy of Infosync World

A reader asks an interesting question about the difference between 3G and Wi-Fi. Our answer may come as a surprise to many.

Reader James K. asks: I’m new to the Internet use on the phone. What’s the difference between 3G and Wi-Fi, and what’s the difference of the U.S. and abroad 3G bands?

First of all, the difference between U.S. and abroad 3G bands is the operating frequencies. In fact, T-Mobile’s 3G network also operates on a different frequency than AT&T’s 3G network here in the U.S. So, if you buy an unlocked phone, it’s important to make sure it supports your carrier’s 3G frequency. Here’s an overview of the 3G frequencies:

  • AT&T Wireless: 850/1900 MHz
  • T-Mobile: 1700 MHz
  • Europe: 2100 MHz

    The lower the frequency range, the better reach a frequency will offer and the fewer base stations are required to get the cellular fun flowing. Recently, Verizon Wireless won a large portion of the 700 MHz band auction, which will enable the carrier to build a mobile broadband network that could be truly nationwide. And the technology they will deploy for this network is LTE (Long Term Evolution), which is 4G technology offering significantly improved network stability and response times as well as higher data speeds.

    That said, a lot of your cell phone usage actually goes through the Internet backbone, which is also why the major carriers are usually major Internet providers. So the difference between 3G and Wi-Fi actually mainly comes down to the way of wirelessly connecting to the Internet backbone. If you have a private Wi-Fi network connected to a reliable Internet provider, nothing will beat that. Most carriers will not allow you to connect your cell phone to a Wi-Fi network for making calls though, and especially not for free (unless you’re using VoIP clients), despite the fact that you may have arranged for everything to work smoothly yourself. On the other hand, a Wi-Fi network of course have limited reach, so if you’re on the road, there’s currently no other option than choosing 3G in those scenarios.

    In the future though, the lack of theoretically available bandwidth may force network providers to use whatever is available in a more rational way, which will ultimately let you pay for only one data subscription, and then use it however you wish. Sprint, Clearwire and Google have already taken the first step to that future by starting the deployment of the Xohm network in Baltimore, based on long-range Mobile WiMAX network technology.

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