How Come My Cell Phone Can Access the Internet Anywhere, but My Laptop Has to Be In A Coffee Shop?

by bledsoe on February 14, 2008

My wife often makes presentations using her laptop, and she often needs an internet connection so she can demonstrate something online to her audience. She had been investigating the laptop cards that allow one to access the internet through the cellular telephone network, so-called “cellular broadband.” She was skeptical about their usefulness, however, asking how their performance would be any different than that of standard (i.e., slow) dial-up internet access. In her mind, if you were going to access the internet using any sort of “telephone connection,” including one that went through the cell phone network, then you were using dial-up.

I think there are a couple of things that are confusing here. One is the distinction between wireless internet service and wireless cell phone service, and another is the distinction between different telecommunications networks and how they work together. So I drew this picture, which I shared with my wife, and since she said it was helpful I thought I’d post it here.

A few things to note about this picture:

  1. There are essentially three ways that most people access the internet: via the landline telephone network, via the cable TV network, or via the cell phone network.
  2. On this picture, there are two ways that someone could access the internet “wirelessly.” One way would be via the cell phone network (i.e., using cellular broadband), and the other would be via some type of wireless router (often referred to as “wi-fi”) which in my picture would get you onto the cable TV network, and then onto the internet. This is the way that most people gain wireless access to the internet, either through a wireless router in their home or one in a coffee shop or other so-called “wi-fi hotspot.”
  3. It may help to think of these four networks as being made up of physically distinct hardware. While it’s true that much of the hardware for all four networks is now digital, I still think of the landline phone network as being constructed of copper wires, the cable TV network as being composed of coax cable, the cell phone network as being composed of a bunch of towers, and the internet as a whole bunch of fiber optic cables.

Obviously this is a simplified description of a pretty complicated set of networks, but it may be helpful for clearing up a little bit of confusion.

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