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WiFi vs Cellular vs Bluetooth vs GPS
What do they all mean?
Dog technology – and just plain ordinary tech – needs devices to talk to each other. Once upon a time you had to use wires but that’s no longer the case.
However, the variety of types of wireless communication can be confusing so in this article I’ll look at the various systems and what they’re used for.
I explain everything in very non-techy language so I hope everyone can understand what they need to know, and any dedicated technophiles won’t take issue with the explanations!
What’s An Internet Connection?
Yeah, right. This may seem like a dumb question ’cause we all know when we’re connected to the internet or not, but let’s just spell it out because it relates to the other forms of communication.
So, when you have an Internet Connection you can Google stuff, check your Facebook and Twitter accounts, buy things from Amazon and all that cool stuff. Yay!
But you can get that connection in one of three ways:
- A wired connection
- A Cellular connection which typically means using mobile data on your phone
Wired – The Ethernet Connection
If you have a desktop computer it will likely be connected to your router or home hub or whatever the broadband providers are calling it these days, with a wire called an Ethernet cable. You connect to the internet through your router.
Because the two are connected with an Ethernet able, this is known as a wired connection. It gives you the fastest and most reliable connection to the internet that you can get, when compared to WiFi and Cellular connections.
Routers, Hubs And Switches
To get just a little more techy – but not much more – a hub is a central connection point whose job is to take the data from all its connections and pass it to all the other connections.
A message meant for one computer will be sent to every other computer attached to the hub. It’s up to each device to decide if the data is meant for it or not.
If you need to connect more devices to your router than your router has ports, you can add a 4- or 8-port hub; they’re fairly inexpensive.
A Hub vs A Switch
A switch is a smart hub. It learns where every device is so it only directs data meant for a particular device to the port that device is connected to. This is obviously faster and more efficient but home users would never notice the difference. It can benefit very large networks, though.
A router connects to your broadband or ISP (Internet Service Provider) usually through a cable connection or a phone line. Most modern routers incorporate a hub and have perhaps four Ethernet sockets so you can connect several computers and a printer, for example.
Modern routers also incorporate WiFi.
Are Wireless and WiFi The Same?
Let’s start with wireless. This is simply a technology that uses radio waves to transmit signals, as opposed to wires or an Ethernet cable, for example. So all the non-wired technologies we’re discussing here are wireless.
So if someone asks if you have a wireless connection, you can show them your radio and laugh at their puzzled face while they tell you that you need a better joke writer.
So WiFi is a wireless technology. Modern routers have built-in WiFi which you can connect to around the house. Most require a password to access the system and when you go to a friend’s house or a coffee shop you will need their WiFi password to connect to their router.
Connecting to a router by WiFi, therefore, lets you access the internet through the router.
Although WiFi is ‘wireless’, it has a much shorter range than broadcast radio signals. It’s typically quoted as 150ft (45m) indoors (although that may be a little generous) but the signal strength drops dramatically if there are obstacles like walls and floors in the way.
You’ll no doubt have experienced a poor WiFi signal in some places and had to move around to improve the connection.
Other WiFi Gadgets
WiFi does not automatically mean a device is connected to the internet. WiFi can also be used to connect individual devices.
WiFi printers are increasingly common. They connect to your router via WiFi and let you print from a computer or an iPad or tablet that’s also connected to the router via WiFi. Neat.
In this case, all the devices are simply connected to your own personal network. If your ISP’s service went down but your router was still working, you’d still be able to print.
Of course, if a printer or device is connected to your router it CAN access the internet so it may be possible to do a firmware upgrade – useful – and send usage data back to the manufacturer – useful for them.
Free Phone Calls
You may be aware – and if you’re not, consider this a public information broadcast – that you can make free calls on your phone using WiFi with apps such as WhatsApp. You can speak to people on the other side of the country – or the world – and it’s free for them, too, if they have WiFi.
You can also do WhatsApp video chats and there are other similar apps, too. However, depending on where you both are, the connection can be erratic, especially if using video.
There’s also Skype which was one of the first such apps and if you use a wired computer the connection will be better and much more stable.
What’s A WiFi Hotspot?
A WiFi Hotspot is simply an area where WiFi is available. A coffee shop may call its WiFi access a Hotspot although the term is more usually associated with WiFi access in large public places such as airports or shopping centres.
WiFi Hotspots are increasingly common, especially in major cities.
“Danger Will Robinson”
(This is a catchphrase from Lost In Space, an American TV series from the mid-1960s, spoken by the Robot as a warning to its companion that danger was near. Wonderful stuff!)
Note that some Hotspots do not require a password to access and these are referred to as ‘unsecured’. This means there is no encryption or security protocol in use and, theoretically, anyone can access your data.
Amazingly, a survey revealed that over 50% of Americans believe their information is safe when they use public WiFi spots, and 50% believed they have no responsibility for securing their own data.
Keep Your Data Safe
Whatever you do and wherever you go, you must take responsibility for your own actions and safety as far as possible.
So, be very, very wary when using a public WiFi Hotspot. Check directly with the provider that the name of the Hotspot is correct and ask them to confirm the password. It’s not unknown for hackers to set up fake Hotspots in large public areas, to access people’s data.
Imagine what could happen if they could log into your email, your social media accounts or, heaven forbid, your bank accounts.
So you be careful out there.
What’s A Cellular Connection, Then?
Cellular is wireless, too. It’s the system you use to talk on your mobile phone. It has a greater range than WiFi, typically quoted as up to 45 miles but often only half that. The signal is easily blocked by buildings and other obstacles and we’ve all had the experience of trying to make a call and having to move around or go outside to get a good signal.
Cellular providers – your mobile phone operator – build radio masts or cell towers to try ensure coverage across the whole area they operate in. That’s why signals are often poor or non-existent in large uninhabited areas – because there are few or no masts providing coverage.
Using A Cellular Service
To use a Cellular system you need a SIM (Subscriber Identity Module) card. This identifies you to the networks so you can access it – and so they can charge you.
Cellular allows you to make phone calls and, of particular interest to us and communication technology, it allows you to connect to the internet. This connection falls under your data plan allowance.
Most mobile phone subscriptions include some data, even though it may not be much, and you can get plans allowing various amounts of data up to unlimited (fair use policy applies!) according to your needs.
With a data allowance you can surf the net, stream music and watch YouTube videos. These are all things you can do for free via WiFi, providing you’re within range, of course.
Cellular vs WiFi
Notice the three main differences between WiFi and Cellular:
1. WiFi access requires a password and is usually free (at home, after you’ve bought the router). Cellular requires a SIM card and account.
2. WiFi has a very short range. Cellular has a much larger range.
3. Data access via WiFi is free whereas it’s monitored and paid for with Cellular.
Where Does GPS Fit In?
GPS or the Global Positioning System was set up and is owned by the American government and run and maintained by the US Air Force.
It uses a system of around 30 satellites circling the Earth to provide geopositioning and time information to GPS receivers. It uses triangulation (technically, it’s trilateration but let’s stick with a term most people are familiar with) to determine the location of the GPS receiver and the satellites transmit data via radio signals – that’s wireless (or technically, microwave signals).
You’ve probably seen movies where someone’s sitting at a screen waiting for the GPS to kick in to find where the baddy’s hiding. Three readings can pinpoint a location fairly accurately. A fourth satellite helps determine altitude although altitude is not as accurate as position.
How Accurate Is GPS?
Accuracy depends on several factors, including the terrain and atmospherics. Accuracy for a civilian GPS receiver might typically be 5-9 metres (15-30ft). At best, it might be about 3m (10ft). On average we can expect 3-5m (10-16ft).
That’s usually good enough for most of us and we get around quite happily (that being a relative term) with Sat Navs and Google Maps. The satellites, however, also transmit encrypted signals that civilian GPS receivers cannot decode and these afford the US Military even greater accuracy.
It’s worth noting that American could disable access to their GPS system at any time if they wish, and they can disable it selectively, too, which they have done in some war zones.
Losing GPS would be a global disaster so other countries including Russia and China have launched satellites for their own GPS systems.
The most accurate signals come when you’re in the open which is good news for dog tracking devices – unless you lose your dog in a very, very big house.
Improving Location Accuracy
Having said all that, the latest GPS satellites are capable of much higher accuracy although you need new chips to read the data. Chip maker Broadcom is, apparently, working on this and they may appear in a phone near you this year or next.
They promise an accuracy of 30cm (10″) with less interference from buildings so they will be of particular benefit to people in cities.
Meanwhile, it’s possible to improve the accuracy of a location service by using additional signal sources. The Location Service in iOS, for example, says it uses GPS, Bluetooth, WiFi and mobile phone masts to determine your ‘approximate location’ so even with all those in play, they doesn’t provide pin point accuracy. If you get as close as 2-3 meters you’re doing well.
Dog trackers use GPS to track and locate your pooch.
While you don’t need an internet connection to use a GPS device, that device will need a connection in order to transmit its position to your phone.
Just so you know.
Finally, or until someone invents another form of wireless communication, there is Bluetooth.
It’s not new. It was developed back in 1994 by Ericsson, to run wireless headphones. It was named after a Viking, Harald Blåtand, which translates as Bluetooth. The Bluetooth logo is a combination of the runic symbols of Harald’s initials.
You never know when that might prove useful in a pub quiz.
The Range Of Bluetooth
Bluetooth has a range of around 10m (32ft) although, as with many forms of wireless communication, obstacles will reduce it.
Technically – yes, here we go again – there are different classes of Bluetooth, some with a greater range, but most of the devices we currently use are Class 2 with aforesaid 10m range.
Although Bluetooth and WiFi share similarities, Bluetooth is used mainly to exchange data between devices, rather like a cordless, er, cord. So we have Bluetooth headphones, speakers, printers, game controllers, watches, shoes – yea, really! – and door locks (brave of you). You also use it to pair your phone to the speaker system in your car so you can take hands-free calls.
So it’s mainly uses for small data exchanges while WiFi is used for connecting devices to the internet and for faster data transfer.
Bluetooth has been through 5 revisions, all backwards-compatible. The latest is Bluetooth 5 which was announced way back in 2016 but take up has been relatively slow. Samsung put in into their Galaxy S8 phone in 2017 and Apple put it into their iPhone 8 later that year, and in 2018 in their HomePod.
Of course, to take advantage of the goodies in Bluetooth 5 such as greater range, faster speed and improved reliability, you need to connect to another Bluetooth 5 device so older equipment won’t see any benefit. And still today, a great many Bluetooth devices being manufactured to Bluetooth 4.
Bluetooth’s Home – The Internet of Things
You may have heard of IoT, the Internet of Things. It suggests a time when everything will be linked to the internet. It’s actually not specifically about connecting things to the internet, but simply connecting things together and they may – or may not – be connected to the internet.
It’s mainly used in the realm of home automation although it has other uses, too, but we’ll stick with that because it’s probably of the most interest to us.
Imagine a house where everything is connected – doors, windows, curtains, blinds, the fridge, washer, drier, heating, lights, the hi fi and, of course, dog and pet gadgets. Hi tech dream or nightmare?
I suspect we’d all like a little of that or you wouldn’t have read this far. If you think it’s the latter then do not watch Demon Seed which is based on a book by Dean R. Koontz. Just saying…
Bluetooth Puts You In Control
Some of you may already have Bluetooth lights that you can control with your tablet or smart phone, changing the brightness and colour. Great fun!
A Bluetooth fridge can let you know if the door’s been left open. With a Bluetooth washing machine you can tell it when to start and stop (useful if you want the clothes to be warm when you arrive home from work).
And there are various dog tech devices that use Bluetooth such as dog trackers, collars and even dog toys.
Now, although these devices talk to each other via Bluetooth, you may still need an internet connection such as WiFi for them to relay this information to your phone, especially if you are away from home.
That’s it. It’s all various shades of wireless.
Hopefully you found this, at the least, mildly interesting and didn’t fall asleep in your soup or porridge.
When you read about the various technologies used by dog tech equipment, it’s here as a quick refresher so you can check what it is and how it works.
As ever, if you have any questions, please leave a Comment below and I’ll reply as soon as I can.