Wi-Fi and broadband have become almost interchangeable terms, but this is mainly through misunderstanding rather than them being very similar things.

I'll often hear people saying "My Wi-Fi is really slow" when it's almost certainly broadband at fault - or something else. Conversely, many Wi-Fi speed test apps you can download on your phone are really broadband checkers and won't tell you how fast your Wi-Fi is.

What is broadband?

There's also confusion between broadband and mobile internet.

Broadband is your home internet connection and operates over a wire, but mobile 'broadband' uses 3G, 4G or 5G to connect directly to the internet via a mobile operator's network.

Until very recently, almost every home had a router or modem which provides a so-called broadband connection to the internet. This might be over your phone line, via a cable connection or even a fibre-optic cable. A relatively new development is fixed mobile broadband, which is where a modem or router uses a 4G or 5G wireless connection to provide an internet connection. In rural areas, broadband can be delivered via satellite.

But your phone, tablet or laptop - when used at home - will connect to that router via Wi-Fi. Only if you have a PC, a games console or set-top box without Wi-Fi will it connect to that router or modem using a network cable.

What's the difference between Wi-Fi and broadband

And that's why some people use Wi-Fi and broadband to mean the same thing.

What is Wi-Fi?

Wi-Fi is essentially a wireless replacement for the traditional Ethernet network cable using radio waves. And most people think of it as a wireless internet connection, but it's simply a way to connect two devices over a network without a cable.

Wi-Fi then, is not internet, and merely allows internet traffic to travel wirelessly to your phone or another device.

It doesn't stand for Wireless Fidelity - that's a misconception - but is just a brand name used instead of the official name of IEEE 802.11x. The 'x' suffix there is a wildcard that covers all Wi-Fi standards, the latest being 802.11ax.

Because that's too confusing and long-winded, the Wi-Fi alliance has now come up with a new naming system that's easier to understand, so the new brand for 802.11ax is Wi-Fi 6.

Newer Wi-Fi standards tend to get faster, but they can also bring other benefits or features. Part of Wi-Fi 6 is enhanced capabilities for routers to handle a lot more devices connecting at the same time.

A few years ago, you might only have a handful of Wi-Fi devices in your home, but it's not uncommon now to have upwards of 20 devices needing a wireless internet connection. From security cameras to smart speakers and media streamers, they're all vying for a slice of your Wi-Fi… and broadband.

Hopefully you can see that Wi-Fi is the first portion of a device's connection to the internet, and broadband is the second. Both are needed for accessing websites and anything else on the internet such as videos, music and podcasts.