Smartphone WiFi and Cell Basics

Cell-TowerWhen choosing a smartphone, you will have infinite choices of phones and service. The service you choose depends on many variables, but if you understand the options, you can make a more informed choice for your particular situation. Generally, your smartphone will use either cell service or wifi service to make calls or connect to the internet as you use your phone.

Here we will compare some of the simple differences of WiFi, 3G, and 4G.

The Basics

If you understand some of the basics of network access available to a smartphone, it will help you choose the type of phone and service that best suits you. Here are the basics:

  • a smartphone will connect to the internet using either WiFi or Cell service.
  • Cell service is provided by a cell tower. 3G and 4G refer to speed of a cell tower. There is a range of several miles. Your phone must have cell service (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, TMobile, …)  to connect to a cell tower.
  • WiFi (Wi-Fi, wireless fidelity, hotspot) refers to a wireless local area network connection provided by your home broadband provider like Verizon FIOS or Comcast XFinity or DSL — or to the network connection found at the Starbucks or McDonald’s. There are even city-wide WiFi locations. It usually has a range of under 100 feet.
  • a phone will automatically use Wifi while browsing if it is available – since it is much faster than cell service.
  • WiFi is 2x-10x faster than 3G. 3G may give you 3Mb/s while WiFi can give you 5Mb to 20Mb or much much more if the network access point is fiber connected.
  • 4G is 3x faster than 3G. 4G may give you about 9Mb/s.
  • a smartphone will remember the WiFi networks to which it connects – some via a password – and reconnect if you’ve been there before. The first time you use a network, the smartphone will ask you if you want to connect.
  • a phone call that doesn’t use the cell phone network  is referred to as a Voice Over IP (VOIP) phone call. VOIP calls may be of a lower quality than a cellular call.
  • the apps on your smartphone may use a cell connection or a WiFi connection – whichever is available.

The Advanced

Now that you know the basics, you can also deduce these features of your smartphone:

  • your smartphone will connect to the internet without Wifi by using cell service
  • if your smartphone or tablet doesn’t have cell service, it can still work WiFi – but you can’t make a typical phone call
  • a smartphone or tablet can use a VOIP app – like Skype or Vonage – instead of cell service to make phone calls.


We’ve examined some Straight Talk smartphones that appear to be the most cost effective available at this time. For information, see the article Straight Talk, Samsung Galaxy Proclaim, and Verizon. For a complete comparison of all 13 Straight Talk phones, see the article Straight Talk Smartphone Comparison.

4 Replies to “Smartphone WiFi and Cell Basics”

  1. I have never had a smartphone or internet on a phone so bear with me here. Cuz I know schools control the wifi and you have to sign in and stuff and it blocks sites but in theory shouldn’t internet on phones work because it uses the cell network for internet, not wifi? Just wondering.

  2. @Mark,
    Yes, you are correct on several points. a) The phone will connect to the internet using the cell network. b) the wifi owner controls if you must sign in and also controls what sites can be accessed. So, a school might not allow access at all or access to specific sites.

    The phone is ‘smart’ such that it decides how to use the networks available. It will notice a nearby wifi network and ask you if you want to connect. If you say yes, you may run into the issues you describe. If you don’t connect, you still have your cell network (slower) option.

    I hope that helps.

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