It’s not quite what some people think it is.
I want to use this question to clear up a surprisingly common misconception.
Wireless internet is not just “out there” to connect to. You need to take steps, whether it’s setting something up, paying for something, or at a minimum, asking for permission.
It’s not the case that you can just turn on wireless on your device and suddenly be connected anywhere you want. The wireless capabilities of your computer are only half of what’s needed.
There are several approaches to getting a wireless internet connection.
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Getting wireless internet
To get wireless internet, consider these options:
- Upgrade your home internet and use your own Wi-Fi router
- Connect to a public Wi-Fi hotspot (only with permission)
- Use a cellular/mobile data plan
- Install a satellite internet service like StarLink.
The most common Wi-Fi setup is to get a Wi-Fi router or access point and connect it to your own wired internet connection. For example, you might upgrade your connection at home, and then place a Wi-Fi router on that connection so you can get the internet wirelessly anywhere in your home.
The second most common Wi-Fi setup is the public Wi-Fi hotspot. This is exactly the same as what I’ve described you do in the home: the hotspot owner has a wired internet connection to which they’ve connected a Wi-Fi router or access point and explicitly left it in the unsecured open mode for anyone to use.
Wi-Fi isn’t everywhere. You need to either set up a Wi-Fi access point yourself or be close enough to a free hotspot to make use of it (more on that below).
The mobile phone network is a large digital network, so it’s no surprise it can be used for internet connectivity. In fact, if you have a smartphone, you’re already using it in the form of your data plan.
The coverage area is generally anywhere your phone will work.
You’ll need to sign up for a data plan with your mobile carrier, but that’s almost a given these days, and some amount of data is almost always included.
That data plan will only get you internet access for your mobile device. Many phones can now also be configured to act as a Wi-Fi hotspot to share that internet with other devices. Think of it as a mobile-to-Wi-Fi converter.
Some mobile carriers also offer internet for the home. Using the same network as your mobile device, they provide you with a different device that you place somewhere in your home with good mobile reception. That then either provides Wi-Fi within your home or connects to your home’s hardwired network.
In years past, satellite internet was problematic at best: a last resort for those without any other option, it was typically slow, expensive, and had caps on how much or when you could fully use it.
That’s changed with the arrival of StarLink. Using a different satellite technology1 and many more satellites, StarLink is a very capable high-speed internet provider. While ideal for areas with few internet options, it’s turning out to be cost-effective for both RV/roaming use as well as normal in-home or business use.
All you need is to sign up, install their satellite antenna, and connect it to your home network.
Bluetooth is not an option for wireless internet access, but I have to mention it because many people seem to think it is because it’s wireless.
Bluetooth is an extremely short-range wireless connectivity technology. By extremely short range, I mean 10-30 feet. Just far enough to connect to your wireless keyboard or mouse. It is not a means to get wireless internet connectivity. When it’s used in conjunction with something like your cellular phone, it’s the cellular network that provides your internet. Bluetooth is just providing that last hop between your cell phone and your computer, automobile, or headphones.
“But I can connect without doing any of that.”
I often get this response asserting that I’m wrong and there must be Wi-Fi everywhere. Take the comment in the original question: “I can get on the internet from my iPad at the edge of my property.”
That’s not terribly surprising. The iPad uses Wi-Fi, and chances are an open Wi-Fi access point is close enough to that side of your property to be in range.
The point is that it’s someone else’s Wi-Fi.
Do you have permission to use it?
Someone else is paying for it. They’re presumably paying for a wired connection and have purchased the hardware to set up the Wi-Fi access point. Just because you can connect doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for you to do so. In many cases, it might even be illegal.
Even if it’s an open Wi-Fi hotspot — perhaps a coffee house — it’s their connection and they set the terms. Typically, their terms are such that the Wi-Fi is provided for their customers, not just “anyone in range.”
If it’s a neighbor… well, they should have set up encryption to prevent just this scenario, but even if they didn’t, that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for you just to connect. Ask first. If they give you permission, then your solution might be to try a Wi-Fi repeater or range extender in your home or get a larger antenna on your wireless device. I’ll caution that this isn’t always simple. Wireless networking seems to be partly magic, but it’s the direction that I’d steer you in once you have permission to do so.
But remember, if you’re using someone else’s internet connection, they can monitor your traffic.
My recommendation is to upgrade your home internet or transition to some other technology I’ve listed above. Then get a Wi-Fi router of your own.
Be sure to password-protect that Wi-Fi connection so someone doesn’t steal your internet connection because they just happen to be close enough.
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Footnotes & References
1: Older technologies were based on geosynchronous satellites 22,000 miles above the Earth. Newer networks use low-earth-orbit satellites that are around 350 miles high.