2010.45 | What’s the difference between Wifi and Wireless?

I get asked this question on a regular basis: “What is the difference between Wifi and wireless connectivity?”.   The issue arises from a desire to make a solution ‘wireless’ for in-store portability.  The confusion arises as many technologies are wireless and that term is used interchangeably with many of them.

In very general terms wireless (most of my customers mean cellular) and wifi are the same thing in that they allow devices to connect to the Internet without a cable.  The functionality and end result is effectively the same.  The difference is in the method of connectivity.

Wifi is a terminology that refers to short range wireless connection to a wireline broadband connection. It is very much a cordless home telephone. The home cordless phone provides a short range wireless connection to a home landline connection.  A router, modem, or switch with wireless capability behaves in the same way by connecting a device with wifi capability wirelessly  to a wired broadband connection. You would use wifi at home, in an airport, or at Starbucks. There are a number of different connection speeds, anywhere from wireless b,wireless g, to wireless n. The connection speed of g or n is generally fast enough to take full advantage of most home broadband connection capability.  In order to access wifi you need permission from the owner of the wireless router to access their network connection. Users must be within range of the network to access it – usually not more than 10-20 meters without special equipment.

In retail, wifi may be used for short distance wireless connections such as wireless handheld devices for inventory, electronic shelf labels, wireless payment terminals in restaurants and wireless monitoring devices for self-checkouts.  The challenge is ensuring security and that any wireless networks can be certified for PCI and EMV.  Their can also be dead spots for the wifi connectivity depending on the layout of the store and materials used.  Concrete and steel check stands, pillars and the like can block or interfere with signal strength though this concern.

Wireless connectivity, while covering many technologies as mentioned generally refers to connecting devices using cellular technology. A cellular wireless device connects to cellular towers to provide internet connectivity. This is how Blackberry, iPhones and smart phones connect to the internet to get data.  (Most actually have wifi connectivity as well)  The most well known example in Canada is Rogers well named and marketed ‘rocket stick’.  This USB based device connects any compatible device to the internet via a 3G connection.  In order to access data from a wireless device over cellular you must subscribe to a cellular data plan either on a smartphone or with a rocket stick device. The only limitation on range on cellular data is the range of the cellular coverage. This means you can use a cellular data connection anywhere you can use a cell phone. While cellular has more range, the speed is not quite as fast as wifi and he speed of cellular data varies with the availability of 3G and 4G networks. In areas without 3G in Canada connections are generally via the older Edge network which provides data but at a much slower speed.


In retail, cellular connections are used on vending machines and kiosks so that third party devices can access the internet without requiring access to a host retailers network. Cellular is also a common backup connection for debit and credit processing in retailers in Canada to ensure electronic payments are still available in the event of primary connectivity failure.

In general, both options provide a savings over wired connections as they lower cost and complexity of installation.  Cellular is certainly gaining ground on the speed advantage of wifi, and is much better for portability.  No matter what technology is embraced in the future, it will probably be wireless.

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