Homes, schools, and businesses connect to the Internet today using a variety of different methods. One method, wireless Internet service, provides Internet access to customers without the need for underground copper, fiber, or other forms of commercial network cabling.
Compared to more established wired services like DSL and cable Internet, wireless technology brings added convenience and mobility to computer networks. The below sections describe each popular type of wireless Internet service available.
Satellite Internet: The First Consumer Wireless
Introduced in the mid-1990s, satellite internet became the first mainstream consumer wireless Internet service. Satellite access initially worked only in one direction, for downloading information. Subscribers needed to install a standard dialup modem and use a telephone line in conjunction with the satellite to make a functional system. Newer forms of satellite service remove this limitation and support full two-way connectivity.
Compared to other forms of wireless Internet service, satellite enjoys the advantage of availability. Requiring only a small dish antenna, satellite modem, and subscription plan, satellite works in almost all rural areas not serviced by other technologies.
However, satellite also offers relatively low performing wireless Internet. Satellite suffers from high latency (delay) connections due to the long distance signals must travel between Earth and the orbiting stations. Satellite also supports relatively modest amounts of network bandwidth.
Public Wi-Fi Networks
Some municipalities have built their public wireless Internet service using Wi-Fi technology. These so-called mesh networks join numerous wireless access points together to span larger urban areas. Individual Wi-Fi hotspots also provide public wireless Internet service in select locations.
Wi-Fi is a low-cost option relative to other forms of wireless Internet service. Equipment is inexpensive (many computers have the needed hardware built-in), and Wi-Fi hotspots remain free in some locales. Availability can be a problem, however. You won't find public Wi-Fi access in most suburban and rural areas.
Note that so-called Super Wi-Fi is a different form of wireless than Wi-Fi itself. More properly known as white spaces technology, Super Wi-Fi runs over a different part of the wireless spectrum and utilizes different radios than Wi-Fi. For a few reasons, white spaces technology has not yet been widely adopted and may never become a popular form of wireless.
Fixed Wireless Broadband
Not to be confused with either satellite Internet or Wi-Fi hotspots, fixed wireless broadband is a type of broadband that utilizes mounted antennas pointed at radio transmission towers.
Mobile Broadband Wireless Service
Cell phones have existed for decades, but only recently have cellular networks evolved to become a mainstream form of wireless Internet service. With an installed cellular network adapter, or by tethering a cell phone to a laptop computer, Internet connectivity can be maintained in any area with cell tower coverage.
Older cellular communication protocols allowed for only very low-speed networking. Newer cell technologies like EV-DO and UMTS promise to deliver network speeds closer to those of DSL and other wired networks.
Many cellular providers sell Internet subscription plans separate from their voice network contracts. Generally speaking, mobile broadband service will not function without having an Internet data subscription in place from some provider.
WiMax is a relatively new form of wireless Internet. It utilizes base stations similar to cellular networks, but WiMax is designed specifically to provide data access and services rather than voice phone communications. When it becomes more mature and widely deployed, WiMax promises to offer full roaming capability and much higher performance networking than satellite at a lower cost.