Wi-Fi isn’t wireless Ethernet. Honest.

It’s really tempting to think of Wi-Fi as “wireless Ethernet.” But, really, it isn’t. You see, Ethernet is just part of the way we describe network information traveling over a wire. It’s so popular that we think of all wired networking as Ethernet, and honestly most of it is. (Not all of it, and I’ll get to that part in a minute.) So if all networking is Ethernet, then you’d say that Wi-Fi is “wireless Ethernet” when it isn’t. It’s wireless networking, that’s true. But it’s not Ethernet.

Ethernet describes the way that computers on the same network talk to each other. Think of it as a set of customs, sort of the way that you and your tight circle of friends have some slang than only you use. Ethernet doesn’t have to use the traditional “Category Cable,” but it pretty much always does these days. When Ethernet was first invented it used big fat cables that were hard to wire, and then later it used coaxial cable. (yes, you can put Ethernet over Coax, but be patient, I told you I’d get to that.)

Wi-Fi uses a different set of customs to communicate, customs (we call them “protocols”) that are designed specifically for wireless communication. A lot more stuff is lost when you broadcast over the air instead of communicating through a wire, and so Wi-Fi is designed to do a lot more error correction and work with really variable speeds.

Of course there are some things that are the same between Ethernet and Wi-Fi, but they aren’t the same. By the way, Wi-Fi isn’t the same as cellular communication either, although you probably already realized that. When you’re talking about LTE or any other cellular data communication, there’s another whole level of stuff going on. Not only do you have to deal with the problems with wireless broadcasts, but you also have to deal with people moving from place to place, and the fact that hundreds or thousands of people could be trying to access the same network at the same time. There’s a lot to do when you’re trying to make a device not much bigger than your hand talk to a radio tower that could be a mile away and you could be moving at 65mph.

Oh yeah. Remember how I talked about Ethernet and coax? While it’s true that Ethernet used to travel over coaxial cables, today’s coax networking isn’t Ethernet. It’s MoCA, which is a special set of protocols designed for smooth multimedia. MoCA limits the number of devices to under 15 and doesn’t do a lot of error correction. After all, a quick missed number in a TV transmission may show up as a momentary blip then it’s forgotten. So when you look at your home, you could be using as many as four different networking schemes at the same time: Ethernet, Wi-Fi, LTE, and MoCA. That’s a lot of different network hardware and if you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that it all works together.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.