I was in St. Louis near the Washington University campus when a billboard caught my eye. It was advertising apartments, and the key feature it touted was “fiber wifi.” What is fiber wifi? Isn’t that kind of like saying “metal wood?”
In the 1990s, when the Internet was still new and novel, it wasn’t uncommon for office buildings and apartments that provided high-speed Internet to tout it. I remember seeing billboards to that effect on my first-ever business trip to Washington DC in 1997.
Over time, Internet speeds stopped advancing, so there wasn’t a lot to brag about. Within a few years, you didn’t see those kinds of billboards so much anymore. If the building provided Internet, fine. But you just didn’t assume it would be great. You expected slow and unreliable, like hotel wifi.
This apartment owner is trying to say their wifi isn’t like crappy hotel wifi.
What is the difference between fiber and wifi?
But technically speaking, if you want to be anal retentive, there’s no such thing as fiber wifi. So what is the difference between fiber and wifi?
Wifi is the wireless signal your phone, tablet, and laptop use to connect to the network. That works the same everywhere. That’s why your phone or tablet or laptop work wherever you take them and you don’t have to worry about flipping compatibility switches or anything. Standards are nice. But wireless signals don’t have a ton of range. Under the right conditions you can get a long line-of-sight range of a couple of miles but it’s not good for general use. Getting a wifi signal to saturate a house of 2,000 square feet takes some technical expertise, or at least a lot of luck.
You can’t connect back to the ISP via wifi. It won’t be a strong enough or fast enough signal. So your wifi signal goes back to the router, and then the router uses a different kind of connection to get back to the ISP for Internet access.
Fiber refers to the connection from the router to the Internet. You’re not dealing with an ancient DSL connection over a copper phone line, or slightly less crappy coaxial cable. It’s fast, reliable, bidirectional fiber optics. It transmits data through tiny glass tubes using pulses of light. Of course we’ve been using fiber optics for data transmission since the 1980s, but it’s taken this long to bring it to the masses.
Explained another way: Fiber is the interstate highway system. Wifi is the network of local roads. That’s the difference between fiber and wifi in a nutshell.
The catch with fiber
Now here’s the catch with fiber. Everyone associates fiber with gigabit Internet. But AT&T offers fiber in speeds of 5 megabits, 300 megabits, 500 megabits, and gigabit. Gigabit is nice. Any of the triple-digit speeds will be tolerable. But five megabits is so 2006. You may want to ask about the speed. Other fiber providers will likely also offer a selection.
A gigabit connection is fast enough they can share it across a whole apartment building and everyone will be happy. They’ll be able to stream all they want, and download speeds will be quick. Upload speeds will be great too, which is great for sharing photos, and turning in homework. Even split several ways, it’ll be faster than that cable connection the apartment’s occupants had a couple of years ago when they were still in high school. And much, much better than crappy hotel wifi.
So what is fiber wifi?
There isn’t room to explain all of that on a billboard though. There’s room on the billboard for a picture, the number of bedrooms, the size of the bathroom, choices of square footage, and one more thing. “Fiber wifi” packs a lot into two words, even if it’s two words that a technologist would say don’t go together. It’s better than crappy hotel wifi. You automatically assume it’s better than the apartment down the street that just says it provides wifi, with no details. Not to mention the apartment building that doesn’t mention wifi at all. Then you probably assume you’re on your own for getting Internet service.
I don’t own an apartment building, but if I did, and could get fiber, you’d better believe I’d bring in fiber-based Internet and put in some good wifi equipment so everyone in the building could use it. And I’d advertise my great fiber wifi too.
So what is fiber wifi? It’s just a marketing term. Billboard shorthand. But it gets the message across. When you tour the building, ask for a demo so you can see how it works yourself. Assuming they didn’t just get the cheapest fiber speed they could, you’ll like it a lot more than crappy hotel wifi.