About Wifi deals and wireless broadband
By Dan Howdle | Friday, January 31st 2020
In this guide
- What is wifi?
- Pros and cons
- Best wifi routers
- Who is wifi for?
- How to set up wifi
- Frequently asked questions
When most people say 'wifi', they actually mean broadband. They are different, though, in the sense that 'wifi' is the most common way to connect your devices to the broadband in your home, where 'broadband' is the technology delivering that connection to your home in the first place.
There's free public wifi too, of course, but we're betting that's not what you're after if you're looking for some sort of deal. If you need help choosing the right deal for you, there's a ton of information below that will help.
What is wifi?
Annoyingly, the term 'wifi' – sometimes formatted Wi-Fi, WiFi, Wifi, wireless broadband or any number of other possible methods of representing these four letters – doesn't actually stand for anything. No, Wi-Fi (with the capitals and the hyphen), started life as a trademark used by the Wi-Fi Alliance. It's definitely not 'wireless fidelity' as hi-fi (high fidelity) may imply.
Like 'hoover' used to describe any vacuum cleaner or 'coke' used to describe any brand of cola, wifi (all lower case) has become the noun that describes the technology that wirelessly delivers internet to our devices, whether that be at home, in a coffee shop, on a train or anywhere else.
While you do need to purchase a broadband deal to get wifi in your home, broadband and wifi are not the same thing. Here's a quick look at the difference.
- Broadband – This is the technology that brings the internet from the wider world into your home through a series of cables, exchanges and street-corner cabinets. Broadband usually arrives via your phone line, or exclusively in the case of Virgin Media, via a TV-style cable. The latter is the superior technology, so if you're looking for the fastest deal you can get, that's where you should start
- Wifi – Once you have a broadband deal, a wireless router, which will be physically plugged into your broadband connection, will distribute wifi connectivity around your home, allowing you to connect all your devices without the use of cables. If you have a large home, you may have to seek out a signal booster (there are various kinds) and place it somewhere in your home's dead zone
Wifi broadband vs wired broadband
Fact is, there's a good number of devices you can't connect to your broadband without wifi anyway – your phone or tablet will fall into that category. Still, where you have the choice there are some upsides and downsides you may not be aware of.
- Connect almost any device – Almost anything can have an internet connection these days. Printers, fridges, even lightbulbs if high-tech 'smart' home gizmos are your thing. And all but a few of them require wifi (some use Bluetooth instead, but that's another subject for another time). Moreover, many common devices don't actually allow a physical, wired connection. You'll struggle to find a phone, tablet or smart device with an ethernet socket (for connecting a cable between it and your router)
- It's simple and automated – Once your devices (your phone or whatever) have memorised your wifi password, they will use your home wifi connection whenever they are in range of your router. This is especially useful in the case of smartphones, where doing so will save on your monthly data allowance
- Connected anywhere in the house – Yes, there are often spots – especially in large houses – where your wifi signal may be weak or non-existent. But think how much more difficult things would be if you had to run cables to every room? Wifi is not only convenient, it's also very tidy
- Download speeds may suffer – Wifi routers, yours included, have to share the airwaves with other similar devices in your neighbourhood. For this reason you will often get slower speeds over wifi than you could achieve via a LAN cable (the type of cable that connects a device such as a laptop to your router – the sort with the chunky clear-plastic ends). This is especially the case with very fast connections. To get the full benefit of Virgin Media's incredibly quick 362Mbps broadband, you're going to need a cable running from your computer to the router. Wifi just won't cut it, maxing out at 100Mbps or less – often a lot less
- Interference can be a problem – In the most congested neighbourhoods where dozens of routers are fighting for their own space in the airwaves, wifi can be downright slow. Extreme cases are fairly rare, but they do happen. Interference can also occur thanks to other things in your house that generate electric fields. Christmas lights are a good example
Which provider has best wifi router?
Does the router make a difference? It can do. The more you demand of your router – the bigger your house, the faster your connection the more devices you connect at any one time – the better you're going to need your router to be. All UK broadband providers supply a router, but not all routers are created equal. Some are happy with a few devices hooked up but then cry under the pressure of a dozen or more, while others allow many times that number connected concurrently.
- Virgin Media – Virgin Media's Hub 3 is an exceptional device that's more than capable of distributing Virgin Media's maximum speed of 516Mbps around your home. Well, via cables at least (see above). It has five antennas (that's very good), and supports wifi in the 5GHz band (the fastest)
- BT – BT claims its Smart Hub is 'more powerful than hubs from other big broadband providers'. It provides no real evidence for this, but we do agree with BT that it is a very good router, especially when it comes to range. Just be aware that the BT Smart Hub only comes with BT Superfast fibre broadband. BT's standard ADSL broadband deals come with a lesser device
- Vodafone – Vodafone's router is also very good indeed. Its big selling point is something called 'beamforming technology'. This allows the router to identify the location of devices struggling with a weak signal and boost said signal specifically in their direction. It's a good bit of kit that doesn't, unfortunately, have a snappy name like its rivals do
- Sky – The Sky Q Hub is Sky's 'fastest ever router'. Sky claims you could happily connect up to 64 devices at the same time before running into any problems. More than enough for everyone. It also has something similar to Vodafone's 'beamforming', though Sky calls it 'Smart Signal' instead
If you don't pick one of these four providers, don't worry. No provider is going to supply you with a total duffer when it comes to routers. More, if we were to pick the cream of the crop, those listed above would be it.
Why choose a wireless broadband deal?
In short, wifi is for everyone bar that one person who has no smartphone, no other devices, and just one computer which is right next to the router and connected via a LAN cable. We're not even certain that person exists, and if they do, they know who they are. As far as the rest of us go, there are some groups who will find wifi broadband particularly beneficial.
- Multi-device households – If you're a large family with kids of an age where they have their own TV, games console, smart phone and so on, wifi is absolutely essential
- Students/shared households – Likewise, student households, or households with a number of non-related tenants need wifi if arguments are to be avoided. Even that's no guarantee, mind
- Gamers – Whether gaming on your smartphone, handheld console such as the Nintendo Switch, or on a regular games console of PC, you either can't or don't want to run physical cables to them. Wifi is ideal for gamers, unless you're downloading huge games on a fast connection. For reasons explained in the pros and cons section, a wired connection may suit that better
- Anyone with a phone, tablet or smart device – Fact is, the device you most likely use most often every day, your phone, won't connect physically to your router, so you absolutely need wifi. Of course, smartphones have their own data access via your network, but no one really wants to be eating into that when they're at home. Use your wifi instead
How do I setup wifi?
If you want wifi at home, you only need follow a few simple steps.
- Choose a broadband deal – You're going to need to choose a broadband deal. Our broadband comparison page has plenty of advice to help you choose if you get stuck
- Wait for router or engineer to arrive – Once ordered, one of two things will happen. With a lot of providers you will receive your broadband wifi router in the post and you'll just need to plug it in on a specific day. With a few, though, such as Virgin Media, you may need a visit from an engineer. If this is the case then you lucked out! He or she will set the whole thing up for you!
- Plug it in, switch it on – On the day you've been given, with most routers it's a simple case of plugging the thing in and switching it on. If there is anything more complicated to deal with, the router will come with specific setup instructions
- Set your wifi password – Once you're up and running you're going to want to change your wifi password from that forgettable jumble of letters and numbers to something more memorable. Just be careful not to make it anything too obvious. Instructions on how to set your password will be included with your router
- Connect your devices – Now you just need to connect any devices, such as smartphones and tablets, via wifi. If you visit the wifi settings on your device you should see your router listed. Click on it and enter your password. Bingo, all done
Frequently asked questions
Do I need broadband to get wifi?
Yes and no. You do need to get a broadband deal if you want wifi that connects to the internet. Technically, though, you can just buy a router without a broadband deal. You won't have access to the internet, but with a good level of technical know-how you can get your computers to connect to one another (called a wireless LAN). Really, though, the answer here is no in all but one in a million cases.
What is wifi short for?
If hifi is high fidelity, wifi is… wireless fidelity? No, though a lot of people think it is, even some who should know better. Wi-Fi was a trademark which has since been adopted to describe the technology as a whole, like hoover or coke (for vacuum cleaners and cola). It doesn't actually stand for anything.
What's the difference between wireless broadband and wifi?
Well, there is a difference: Wireless broadband is, technically, broadband brought to your home wirelessly, rather than via a fixed line, whereas wifi is broadband brought to your home via a fixed line and routed around your home, over wifi, with your broadband router. However, these terms are often used interchangeably, with some people incorrectly calling wifi 'wireless broadband'. It's more confusing than it should be, to be fair.
What is wifi calling?
Wifi calling uses your home wifi connection to make calls via the internet. It's a feature you can set up on your smartphone with some networks. The calls you make from home, then, won't be counted to your monthly free minutes. It's even more useful when you consider that your 'free minutes' often aren't, depending on who you are calling.
Is wifi harmful to health?
There is currently no evidence to suggest wifi or mobile signals carry with them any health risks.